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We hear you have no time to read. With all this bookishness, we are perhaps swimming upstream while others are going down river with the currents.  But salmon go upstream, too, to regenerate the species.  It is a pretty sight, even if horrible man-made obstacles get in their way, threatening the very survival of these lovely fish.  We wonder if the human species will fall by the wayside if book reading disappears.

We have collected here all the books that are shown on the Global Province and even a few that are not.  Some of our contributors will be adding books to this section as well.   In most cases, if you find one you like pluck it down from the shelf with a computer click which will lead you to

Business - Literature - Art - Home & Garden - Reference - Nature & Travel - Food, Wine, & Tea - Science & Technology - Education - History - Politics, Society, & Culture - Health - Miscellaneous


The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success, William N. Thorndike

Tuxedo Park, Jennet Conant

The Big Short, Michael Lewis

Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, Robert Neuwirth

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business - Charles Duhigg - 2012

Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All - Jim Collins and Morton Hansen - 2011 (10-12-11)

Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism - Kevin Phillips - 2008 (10-28-09)

Come Home, America - William Greider (04-01-09)

Getting China and India Right - Anil K. Gupta and Haiyan Wang (03-18-09)

Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East - Gita Mehta (03-18-09)

The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising - Ken Roman (03-04-09)

The Power of Irrational Explanations
“Economics and politics prevented the professor from returning to more literary pursuits until 1990, when he published A Tenured Professor—this still stands on its own merits as a darkly funny campus novel, to my mind.  The novel’s protagonist, Professor Montgomery Marvin, is the inventor of the Index of Irrational Expectations, or IRAT.  IRAT , which allows him to profit from the wrongheaded optimism of the market through comfortable statistical means.  Marvin and his wife use their well-gotten gains for altruistic, liberal purposes, while Galbraith gets in his digs at everyone from the Wall Street raiders to Ronald Reagan to Cambridge’s intellectuals: ‘No one has ever been known to repeat what he or she has heard at a party, only what he or she has said.’” 

Needless to say, it only a few years after Galbraith laid out this fantasy that Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan came to look at the stock market as filled with irrational exuberance.  Fiction is eminently true, just a bit early.  (6/28/06)

Sweet Goes Low
As in many family companies, some of which we have counseled, bad family management prevented Sweet and Low from growing into a giant, but it did not kill it.  Often a family astray will turn a tiger into a sloth, but not kill it.  Danile Akst does an apt review of Rich Cohen’s Sweet and Low in the Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2006, p. W7.  Cohen knows the whole warts-filled story, because he was the Cohen son.  The company got its start because the founders saw a clunky sugar dispenser in a restaurant.  They came up with a mixture of cyclamate, saccharine and lactose—sweet, easy to use, but not  fattening.  Because of poor management, competitors Splenda and Equal pass it by.  The next generation reportedly were involved with the mob and they looted the company.  In 1969, the FDA issued a ban on cyclamate, and later saccharine itself got into the doghouse.  Later, science reversed itself, and neither sweetener is now considered a carcinogen.  The company continues, but it has never been the same, since the government and family canker attacked it. 

Akst says Cohen has devised a few rules about family success: 

Do not observe primogeniture: birth order has no significance.
There is nothing immediate about immediate family.
Make the kid work for it. 

In other words, if you start a pretty good family company, look around before you decide who should inherit your roost.  Probably Junior should not.  (5/31/06)

The Pin Factory and the Invisible Hand
In his review of David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, Paul Krugman tells of the struggle between “the Pin Factory and the Invisible Hand,” a paradox Warsh develops in his book.  Through increasing scale and specialization, enterprises increase productivity and drive out smaller competitors, finally achieving monopoly.  The problem, of course, is that it is an assemblage of competitors that makes the market system work, letting new ideas, best practices, and better values rise to the surface.  Both scale and the lack of it can present problems.  The trouble with big-scale companies is that they can influence the economy all out of their proportion to their ability to deliver real economic value to a country’s citizens.  They can grow so large that they are only capable of sending signals into the markets, no longer sensitive enough to receive them.  (5/10/06)

Branding and the Senses
Martin Lindstrom says branding is all about touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.  In his Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound, this ad executive says we have to go beyond print and TV where we work through the eyes, capturing consumers by connecting with the 5 senses.  “Mr. Lindstrom suggests that brandbuilders can learn from organized religion, where sensory experiences (the small of incense, the cry of the muezzin or the taste of a sacramental wafer) have been blended for centuries to bind consumers closer to  the faith” (The Economist, April 23, 205, p. 80).  (1/4/06)

The Decade’s Best Seller
“Under Drucker’s tutelage, Warren’s own success as a spiritual entrepreneur has been considerable.  Saddleback has grown to 15,000 members and has helped start another 60 churches throughout the world.  Warren’s 2001 book, The Purpose-driven Life, is this decade’s best seller with 19.5 million copies sold so far and compiling at the rate of 500,000 per month.”  Rich Karlgard interviewed Peter Drucker “On Leadership” for Forbes on November 19, 2004.  He got two for one that day, also conversing with Rick Warren, pastor of the immensely successful Saddleback Church in Orange County, California as part of the same dialogue.  Warren has put together a huge ministry—without TV—and, as evidenced by his book, stays on message, dwelling on the essentials of a purpose-driven life.  Warren has been able to get churches throughout the country to spread his message and sell his book, collaborating, if you like, with other pastors and avoiding the cumbersome and expensive process of developing the bricks and mortar which would go into his own distribution network.  His has been a cooperative or networking enterprise.  (1/4/06)

Update: “Jesus, CEO.”  The Economist (December 20, 2005), in an irreverent mood, talks about how churches are having to model themselves on businesses and, in particular, to learn the rules of marketing:

This emphasis on customer-service is producing a predictable result: growth.  John Vaughan, a consultant who specialises in mega-churches, argues that 2005 has been a landmark year.  This was the first time an American church passed the 30,000-a-week attendance mark (it was Lakewood, which earlier this year moved into its new home in Houston's Compaq Center).  It was also the first time that 1,000 churches counted as mega-churches (broadly, you qualify if 2,000 or more people attend).  …

Most successful churches are humming with technology.  Willow Creek sports four video-editing suites.  World Changers Ministries has a music studio and a record label.  The Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, employs a chief technology officer (and spends 15% of its $30m annual budget on technology).

Willow Creek has a consulting arm, the Willow Creek Association, that has more than 11,500 member churches.  It puts on leadership events for more than 100,000 people a year (guest speakers have included Jim Collins, a business guru, and Bill Clinton) and earns almost $20m a year.  Rick Warren likens his “purpose-driven formula” to an Intel operating chip that can be inserted into the motherboard of any church—and points out that there are more than 30,000 “purpose-driven” churches.  Mr. Warren has also set up a website,, that gives 100,000 pastors access to e-mail forums, prayer sites and pre-cooked sermons, including over 20-years-worth of Mr. Warren’s own.

Obviously there are some downsides for religion and faith as earthly showboating comes to dominate, even obliterate spiritual focus.  But it is part of a wider shift that is occurring in non-profit institutions that cater to large audiences—from churches to universities to museums.  They are having to retool themselves to deal with consumers who are terribly busy and who often prefer to take entertainments and leisure at home, eschewing mass environments.  Undercapitalized institutions of any type who have not re-invented and invested in their product are losing audience share, particularly smaller institutions.

These mega-churches have put entertainment tactics to work, even as many of the principal organized religions continue to experience attrition.  “The number of Methodist lay member fell 0.7% from 2002 to 2003, to 8.2 million.”  This has led both Methodists, as well as Episcopalians, to reach out for members through advertising.  The Episcopal Church experienced a “1.6% membership decline between 2002 and 2003” (Business Week, September 26, 2005, p. 14).

Meanwhile economists are getting into thinking about religion as a business, theorizing about “how people ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ the goods and services—material and spiritual—that religious organizations provide.”  See Business Week, December 6, 2004, pp. 136-38.  Likewise, they are looking into religious terrorism.  Pre-eminent in this field is “Laurence R. Iannaccone … professor at George Mason University” who studied under Gary Becker at Chicago, who heads up the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics & Culture.  In effect, economists who study such things suggest that consumers exhibit the same rationality in buying religious goods as they do with other economic choices.  Timur Kuram at the University of Southern California is looking at how religions affect economic growth, noting the constraints Muslim belief have put on Islamic societies, which he details in Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism.

Of course, in Europe and the West, religion has been a prod to the economy, an idea documented by a host of economists.  In this regard, see our “Celebrating Tomorrow.”  (1/11/06)

R. Buckminster Fuller
If we were to recommend a read for tired businesspersons or wet-behind-the-ears MBAs, it would be R. Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.  That wonderful futurist and spinner of geodesic domes wrote this short, accessible book that says you have to be an intellectual pirate to win globally.  That’s about right.  The shortest distance between two points is not on the highways, sea lanes, or air passages plotted by our bureaucrats, but on the pathways that never made it onto the maps.

Lewis and Sports Management
Michael Lewis has to be one of the more interesting chroniclers of our time, and he has caught hold of some trends that we all seem to miss.  We have not really followed the in’s and out’s of his career, but we think his life as author got started in Liars Poker, where he recounted his own life before writing at Salomon Brothers.  In this witty book, he showed investment banking to be a pissing game where the contestants go to all sorts of pains to show who has the longest stream.  The theme of gamesmanship and competitive antics shows up a lot in his writing, revealing, in The New New Thing, Jim Clark of Silicon Valley to be first and foremost a gambler in who very much understood the art of bluffing.

We’re taken as well by his writings about big-time athletics.  There, we think, he depicts avant garde management processes that leave the business world in the dust.  On the one hand, he has shown how general managers with limited resources can put together winning ball clubs by combining statistical analysis with recruiting.  We discussed just this in “Sportsmanship”:

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game lays out how General Manager Billy Beane has used statistics and intellect to put together winning ball clubs at the Oakland Athletics.  Similar systems for measuring value have buttressed the Red Sox under the guidance of GM Theo Epstein.  They have proven that there’s a lot to be had in the dregs of the wine bottle and the leftover players whom nobody wants.  This is all part of a tendency of the new breed of managers to get very much more out of limited resources.  Increasingly, we will be using mathematics in several fields of activity to marshal what we need in an environment where the options are constantly changing.

Now Lewis has moved from hardball recruitment practices to dynamic operations principles.  In a look at college football, he has shown how Coach Mike Leach of Texas Tech has run rings around his peers with a whole different view of how the game should be played.  In a passing game, he puts out more receivers and does more plays than ordinary heavyweight teams.  Huge emphasis is placed on running and conditioning: the coach puts his players in better fettle than those of the opposition.  For the first two or even three quarters, Leach uses diverse plays to probe how the opposing team defends against his gamut of plays.  His quarterbacks have great latitude to depart from the playbook set before the game, so that they do not respond to an evolving situation with setpiece tactics.  In game after game, this has led to rapidfire touchdowns towards the end of the game, leading to scores that literally embarrass opposing coaches, who begin the day with high confidence.  Some of this is detailed in “Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep,” Sunday Times Magazine, December 4, 2005, pp. 58-65 and 109-114.  “Synergy, in Leach’s view, doesn’t come from mixing runs with passes but from throwing the ball everywhere on the field, to every possible person allowed to catch a ball.”  Operations research—in football—has led to a different kind of air-war dominated game.  (1/25/06)

Not Learning at Harvard
Years ago, Mark McCormack put out What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.  We suspect they don’t teach the essence of branding there either—or even at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, which is felt by some to be the temple of marketing.  The schools teach the science of marketing, which is about how to slice and dice markets: branding is about the art of engagement where we try to conquer the inherent distance between a maker of a product and his ultimate customer.  (3/1/06)

Meeting of the East and West
It’s very, very hard for the Western mind to operate globally.  We have always had an eye for the particular, rather than the whole—both a strength and a weakness.  The East has tended to see the whole.  For more on this, see F.S.C. Northrop’s Meeting of East and West.  Right now our near-sighted compulsions are hamstringing us in business and in geopolitics.  (2/25/06)

DNA Companies
In “Fire and Darkness,” we suggested that a leader could not grasp his times unless he landed on the correct philosophical base.  Those adhering to constructs that posit a static world will not do well now: better to be a Hegelian, or a Heraclitean existentialist.  Those trying to work out a strategy for an organization have much the same dilemma: if they do not understand the dynamic nature of modern systems, they will try to separate structure from process, when both have become one and the same. The Economist got to this very idea in “The New Organisation,” January 21, 2006, p. 18: “In the 1990s engineering enjoyed a renaissance, in the guise of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), the dominant management idea of that decade.”  This, by the way, largely turned out to be an idea that jibed with an era of restructuring and cost-cutting, but not with substantial business transformation and revenue enlargement.  “The ‘new organisation’ breaks free of this engineering heritage.  In Results, a recent book by two Booz Allen consultants … the authors talk about ‘the DNA of living organisatons.”  “McKinsey’s Lowell Bryan also talks about ‘the personality of the firm.’”  As The Economist puts it, this is a corporate switch from “Lego to DNA.”  We would suggest that this paradigm shift mandates an organic interpretation of the company and, more importantly, a complex look at its interaction with its environment, something we used to call ‘markets.’  (5/10/06)

The Pin Factory and the Invisible Hand
In his review of David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, Paul Krugman tells of the struggle between “the Pin Factory and the Invisible Hand,” a paradox Warsh develops in his book.  Through increasing scale and specialization, enterprises increase productivity and drive out smaller competitors, finally achieving monopoly.  The problem, of course, is that it is an assemblage of competitors that makes the market system work, letting new ideas, best practices, and better values rise to the surface.  Both scale and the lack of it can present problems.  The trouble with big-scale companies is that they can influence the economy all out of their proportion to their ability to deliver real economic value to a country’s citizens.  They can grow so large that they are only capable of sending signals into the markets, no longer sensitive enough to receive them.

Profits of Doom
As much as anybody, Ernest Sandberg at the University at Buffalo has cornered the academic disaster market.  In planning, he is doing considerable work on terrorism and natural disasters.  He has also ploughed a lot of  other ground as evidenced by his book The Economy of Icons: How Business Manufactures Meaning in which he claims that image not information is the driving force of our economy.  We find it interesting to discover how image conscious Sternberg and his colleagues are: they positioned themselves well to attract notice from Hurricane Katrina, and the press took the bait. Probably more profound is Theodore Steinberg’s book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America.  It documents how many natural disasters have been magnified through grave human error.  Hurricane Katrina was magnified by the huge loss of wetlands in the Gulf area.  Interestingly, we find the theoretical work on disasters and disaster recovery is really a bit thin.  (11/2/05)

Slaves at Work.  In the November 28, 2005 issue of the New Yorker, its one-page business columnist James Surowicki frets about “No Work and No Play.”  By and large, or so he claims, the Europeans (particularly the Germans and French) work about 25 to 30% less than Americans.  Basically he attributes this to the strength of the labor unions on the Continent.  According to Surowicki, this has led to higher rates of unemployment in Europe since the service trades such as foodservice and domestic care have not flourished there as in America.  The Europeans don’t eat out as much or use as many household helpers.

As near as we can tell from all the surveys, job satisfaction has gone into the tank for both Americans and Europeans.  But at least the Europeans are working less—or not at all, so they have less to be dissatisfied about.  We should note that mental anguish and depression are rampant in all developed cultures, which we take to be a result, at least in part, of the mindnumbing nature of modern work, work that has no end.

Depression aside, economists rave about rising productivity in the U.S.—but one has to look carefully at all this.  Some would say that the productivity miracle in the U.S. is less than meets the eye.  One bright Wall Street analyst theorizes that Americans have not become more productive, but are simply working longer hours.  We find that this is particularly true of middle managers, whose ranks have been thinned out by corporate cost-cutting and who are taking up the slack by putting in 14 to 16 hour days.  Barry Lynn talks of multinational corporations that have become far too lean in End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation.  There is evidence, incidentally, that suggests that the much maligned French are more productive than U.S. workers, but that their economic output falls short of ours simply because they are cumulatively working less hours.

This is the nicely deviant title of Professor Steven Levitt’s new book, which has earned him all sorts of attention from the pundits.  Readers of the Global Province have previously encountered him in “Chicago Has Got It,” in our Big Ideas section.  By double sifting economic data, he reaches a host of conclusions about why things in our society are the way they are, upsetting many of our complacent notions about what makes us tick. 

John Tierney in The New York Times (“The Miracle That Wasn’t,” April 16, 2005, p. A270) reported on a debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Levitt where the Chicago professor’s idea that abortion lies behind falling crime rates won the day.  Longer prison terms, increased policing, etc. do not seem half as important in crime’s decline when you follow the Prof’s train of logic.  

The thought, oversimplified, is that fewer children of unwed mothers get out on the street when free and easy abortion is at hand.  They, unfortunately, account for a lot of crime.  Our hunch is that his “abortion” theory holds water, but that it really is still only one of a potpourri of factors that make for falling crime rates.  Crime maps and statistical analysis also have simply led to much more effective policing.  Broadly, of course, changing demographics have a lot to do with crime attrition.  Since abortions have increased under the Bush administration, we can only assume that the Republicans have become unwitting crimefighters, much to their chagrin.  Some, of course, will find the discovery  of the abortion factor equivalent to the Reverend Jonathan Swift’s  “Modest Proposal,” a satirical essay where the author proposes to eliminate population and starvation problems in the Emerald Isle by getting the Irish to eat their children.  

More on Microfinance
Everybody from Bono to Bill Gates is taking a whack at world poverty, a field open to all comers since nobody has a good model for getting at the problem.  Pierre Omidyar, founder of eDay and co-founder of Omidyar Network, has gotten into the act by taking up the cudgels for microfinance.  He is funneling $100 million to microfinance institutions via The Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund.  In fact, microfinance is very much the enthusiasm of this decade, which one can read about in The Economics of Microfinance and in the publication Microfinance Matters.  All this was set in motion by the Peruvian Herman de Soto. 

A good review of progress in this sector is found in “The Hidden Wealth of the Poor,” The Economist, November 5, 2005.  “Local banking giants that used to ignore the poor, such as Ecuador’s Bank Pichincha and India’s ICICI, are now entering the market….  Some of the world’s biggest and wealthiest banks, including Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, HSBC, ING and ABN Amro, are dipping their toes into the water.”  Everybody from Islamic fundamentalists to Maoists to Afghan drug traders have plundered and murdered to prevent the spread of microfinance which loosens the hold they have over the poor.  “The core of the industry today consists of some three dozen multinational networks of microfinance providers....”  “The biggest networks include Opportunity International, FINCA, ACCION, Pro-Credit, Women’s World Banking  and arguably Grameen….”  With the entry of the big banks, microfinance is becoming increasingly mainstream; now it will have to include its range of financial service products for the poor, venturing, for instance, into insurance.  (6/14/06)

Sweet Goes Low
As in many family companies, some of which we have counseled, bad family management prevented Sweet and Low from growing into a giant, but it did not kill it.  Often a family astray will turn a tiger into a sloth, but not kill it.  Danile Akst does an apt review of Rich Cohen’s Sweet and Low in the Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2006, p. W7.  Cohen knows the whole warts-filled story, because he was the Cohen son.  The company got its start because the founders saw a clunky sugar dispenser in a restaurant.  They came up with a mixture of cyclamate, saccharine and lactose—sweet, easy to use, but not  fattening.  Because of poor management, competitors Splenda and Equal pass it by.  The next generation reportedly were involved with the mob and they looted the company.  In 1969, the FDA issued a ban on cyclamate, and later saccharine itself got into the doghouse.  Later, science reversed itself, and neither sweetener is now considered a carcinogen.  The company continues, but it has never been the same, since the government and family canker attacked it.  

Akst says Cohen has devised a few rules about family success: 

Do not observe primogeniture: birth order has no significance.
There is nothing immediate about immediate family.
Make the kid work for it. 

In other words, if you start a pretty good family company, look around before you decide who should inherit your roost.  Probably Junior should not.  (5/31/06)

DNA Companies
In “Fire and Darkness,” we suggested that a leader could not grasp his times unless he landed on the correct philosophical base.  Those adhering to constructs that posit a static world will not do well now: better to be a Hegelian, or a Heraclitean existentialist.  Those trying to work out a strategy for an organization have much the same dilemma: if they do not understand the dynamic nature of modern systems, they will try to separate structure from process, when both have become one and the same. The Economist got to this very idea in “The New Organisation,” January 21, 2006, p. 18: “In the 1990s engineering enjoyed a renaissance, in the guise of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), the dominant management idea of that decade.”  This, by the way, largely turned out to be an idea that jibed with an era of restructuring and cost-cutting, but not with substantial business transformation and revenue enlargement.  “The ‘new organisation’ breaks free of this engineering heritage.  In Results, a recent book by two Booz Allen consultants … the authors talk about ‘the DNA of living organisatons.”  “McKinsey’s Lowell Bryan also talks about ‘the personality of the firm.’”  As The Economist puts it, this is a corporate switch from “Lego to DNA.”  We would suggest that this paradigm shift mandates an organic interpretation of the company and, more importantly, a complex look at its interaction with its environment, something we used to call ‘markets.’  (5/10/06)

Oil, Oil Everywhere?
We have been very busy telling you to buy yourself several pairs of winter underwear, because the world is running out of fossil fuels, and it seems destined to make a very uneasy transition to fusion energy and other alternatives.   See “Electric Power and Staying Power,” as well as items 58, 86, 141, 166, 177, 178, and 180 on Big Ideas. 

Nothing is as simple as it seems, so we will now confuse you and ourselves yet more.  Take a peek at The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, The Virtue of Waste, And Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy by Peter Huber and Mark Mills.  Or get the short version in “Oil, Oil, Everywhere…,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2005, p. A13.  “The price of oil remains high only because the cost of oil remains so low.  We remain dependent on oil from the Mideast not because the planet is running out of burled hydrocarbons, but because extracting oil from the deserts of the Persian Gulf is so easy and cheap that it’s risky to invest capital to extract somewhat more stubborn oil from far larger deposits in Alberta.”  “In sum, it costs under $5 per barrel to pump oil out from under the sand in Iraq, and about $15 to melt it out of the sand in Alberta.”  “The $5 billion (U.S.) Athabasca Oil Sands Project that Shell and ChevronTexaco opened in Alberta last year is now pumping 155,000 barrels per day.”  “And capital costs are going to keep falling, because the cost of a tar-sand refinery depends on technology, and technology costs always fall.  Bacteria, for example, have already been successfully bioengineered to crack heavy oil molecules….”  “U.S. oil policy should be to promote new capital investment in the United States, Canada, and other oil-producing countries that are politically stable, and promote stable government in those that aren’t.”  Is it possible that we won’t have a fossil fuel crisis?   

Please notice that  we have rather neglected the issue of tar-sands and will take it up in future notes. Alberta, incidentally, because of its oil wealth, is able to sneer at the fellows in Ottawa.  Don’t be surprised if it separates from Canada well before Quebec. (2/9/05)

Against the Gods
Peter Bernstein, the author of Against the Gods, a book about the history of financial risk, and thinker about many facets of investment, explains well how the intelligent management of risk really underlies the growth of capitalism as we know it.  Of course, risk management, whether we are dealing with terrorists, disease, fractals, or financial bubbles, demands a rather dispassionate ability to weigh the odds and estimate the probabilities.  The gods will strike us down if we cannot reckon with the many   simultaneous plots in which they have decided we will be actors.  For more on Bernstein, see “Getting the Boardroom off Unemployment,” “Don't Worry About the Copperheads; The Big Bear Will Get You First,” and

Museums and Retail
Rob Walker, who now writes regular consumer marketing columns for the New York Times Magazine, most recently has discussed the link between museums and stores.  (See “Museum Quality,” New York Times Magazine, January 9, 2005, p. 25), telling how the Museum of Modern Art has now created a store within its store featuring goods from Muji, a company in Japan that is expanding in Europe and the U.S.  Apparently this is all remarked upon in James B. Twitchell’s book Branded Nation.  The retail activities of museums seem to be yet another extension of the idea of taking highly branded goods and offering them in a fine, highly controlled retail environment.  In much the same manner, in years past, a Japanese manufacturer of high-end toilets offered them in a well designed showroom that simultaneously served as a toney coffee house for high-end consumers. 

Too Poor for Wal-Mart
Try as it might, Wal-Mart cannot seem to get past the law suits and allegations that alleges that it treats its employees unfairly (terrible healthcare policies and failure to pay for overtime), pays them too little, and discriminates against women when it comes to promotions, etc.  Barbara Ehrenreich, who even worked for the company for a while to investigate its practices, just wrote a satirical column with a huge amount of sting entitled “Wal-Mars Invades Earth,” The New York Times, July 25, 2004, p. WK 11.   She is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which deals with the struggles of the lowest wage earners, a growing segment of our population, in trying to make ends meet.  Both the chairman and chief executive of Wal-Mart make reference to the social and environmental concerns the company has aroused in its current annual reports.

Business Sense: Mr. China
In the July/August 2004 issue of Global Finance (pp. 17-19), Winter Wright offers Westerners getting started in China sundry do’s and don’ts on dealing with a climate that still does not really have an enforceable business code.  Above all, he suggests, you should not suspend the commonsense you would display in any other country.  Don’t place blind trust in a local business partner.  Understand that a government bureaucrat, particularly one on the take, can put you in business or out of business in a moment.  Find a way to achieve scale (perhaps, with alliances) even if you are small, since that is paramount to getting traction with the locals who are the gatekeepers of your success.  Know that China does not really score that high on the criteria put out by the International Finance Corporation in its Doing Business in 2004, which you can now read about in Agile Companies.  

Our man in Hong Kong, Andrew Tanzer, reviews below with high praise Mr. China, an almost tell all by a writer who actually knows a lot.  It gives you a sense of what you have to deal with in China.  But as Tanzer points out, with all the complications, there’s still plenty of success to be had in an economy growing 8% a year: 

Let’s say an aggressive journalist with a keen sense of smell sniffs an undisclosed scandal or investment debacle in a corporation.  He or she approaches the company fortress and is greeted by obfuscating or stonewalling executives, oily PR handlers, barking lawyers.  Hard-nosed and energetic, the reporter interrogates suppliers, customers, ex-employees, ex-spouses, garbage handlers—anyone, to get the scoop.  Weeks later, the editor rings to say time is up: the paper has deadlines; resources are finite.  The paper trumpets an investigative expose that is maybe half of the real story. 

The beauty of Mr. China, by Tim Clissold (Constable & Robinson, London, 2004), is that the stories are all there.  With rich, delectable anecdotes, Mr. China illuminates scams in China, piles high the dirt and etches heroes’ and villains’ portraits memorably.  The tales of foreign investment disaster, and conflict between the Chinese and the foreign barbarians, oscillate between comedy and tragedy. 

Clissold, of course, is no journalist.  A Chinese-speaking Briton, he had a front-row seat in the 1990s as second in command at a foreign private-equity investor he doesn’t identify.  Nor does he identify “Pat,” the boss, a master of the universe from Wall Street who somehow raised $418 million in the U.S. in the mid-1990s to invest in China.  We’ll make an educated guess: the firm is Asimco and the Wall Streeter with the China dream is Jack Perkowski.  Mr. China is the story of vanishing dollars and the unraveling of that China dream. 

Pat focused on two industries: motor-vehicle components and beer, businesses where he figured he could buy Chinese factories and be the great consolidator.  A consummate salesman, he had no trouble raising over $400 million in the U.S.; perhaps more surprisingly, he invested the entire amount in just two years.  Then the cultural learning experiences commenced. 

The first deal, an ignition-coil factory in Changchun (the Detroit of China), Northeast China, went like this: the foreign side invested cash for 60% of the business; the Chinese put up land and buildings for a 40% stake.  A few weeks after the deal closed, the Chinese factory director called to say there was a slight problem: “Our factory’s land … is not registered in our name so we can’t put it in.  Does that matter?” 

After the foreigners invested in a gear-wheel factory for motorcycles in Sichuan, the factory director flew to Beijing to seek approval for a gearbox factory.  The foreign investors rejected the proposal.  Next visit to Sichuan, Clissold was stunned to find a new plant under construction, “‘Er, Mr. Su, what’s that?’” he asked.  “Mr. Su, beaming from ear to ear, announced proudly, ‘It’s the new gearbox factory.’” 

But these lessons were mild compared to what was to come.  Up at an electrical components factory in Harbin, when the foreigners attempted to sack the manager, he coerced suppliers to stop shipping parts to the plant and told customers that the plant was going bust.  Down in Zhuhai, Guangdong, the factory director of a brake-pad factory stole millions of dollars through issuing phony letters of credit that a Chinese bank opened without proper authorization.  Clissold visited the Zhuhai Anti-Corruption Bureau to ask for an investigation.  The chap in charge of cases involving foreign investors said he’d investigate, but “in order to do so we would have to give him a ‘car and some working capital.’”  When the foreigners sought justice against the bank in a local court, the case was thrown out even though the bank “lost” documents demanded by the court. 

One of the best factory directors in their universe, in Anhui, built a second factory in direct competition.  When the foreigners sought legal action, the warlord-like factory director milked his relations with local government and apparently fomented a factory strike.  Demonstrations turned so violent that the local government called out the military. 

Over at an electrical-motor factory in Hubei, the joint venture factory director siphoned profits into the Chinese partner through sales offices that operated in the partner’s name.  When the foreigners attempted to sack the director, violence erupted.  Nor did the hapless foreigners fare any better in beer.  Shortly after investing $58 million in a beer joint venture in Beijing, Clissold discovered that the money had vanished: it went to repay an overdue bank loan by the Chinese partner, which was owned by the Beijing Government. 

“I was dealing with a society that had no rules—or, more accurately, plenty of rules that were seldom enforced,” writes Clissold.  “China seemed to be run by masterful showmen: appearances mattered more than substance, rules were there to be distorted and success came through outfacing an opponent … a core difference between Chinese and Western business: for a Westerner, a contract is a contract, but in China it’s a snapshot of a set of arrangements that happened to exist at one time.”  Clissold simultaneously felt squeezed by the uncomprehending, impatient investors in the U.S.  Somewhere along the line, the young man had a heart attack while on vacation in France. 

The funny thing is, today China’s car market is booming and rapidly integrating with the global car industry; Chinese breweries are rapidly merging and the beer industry is consolidating.  Reckless and naïve, Pat may just have been a bit ahead of his time.

Information Technology Doesn’t Matter
In May 2002, Nicholar Carr, an editor at the Harvard Business Review, came out with a shattering manifesto in HBR called “IT doesn’t matter.”  It so shook up CIOs that he has now come out with a book of the same name.  (See IT Doesn’t Matter—Business Processes Do.)  But he really doesn’t mean it.  “For commerce as a whole, Mr. Carr is insistent, IT matters very much indeed.”  His thought is that IT only becomes “revolutionary for society only when it” ceases “to be a proprietary technology, owned or used by one or two factories here and there, and instead” “an infrastructure –ubiquitous, and shared by all.”  See The Economist, April 3, 2004, p. 70.  “Since IT can no longer be a source of strategic advantage, Mr. Carr urges CIOs to spend less on their data-centres, to opt for cheaper commodity equipment wherever  possible,  to follow their rivals rather than trying to outdo them with fancy new systems, and to focus more on IT’s  vulnerabilities, from viruses to data theft, than on its opportunities.”  See his website,
articles/matter.html, in order to gauge the tempest he has stirred up with IT Doesn’t Matter?

The Triumph of Narrative
Robert Fulford of Canada (see has written and lectured about The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture.  He reminds us that the story is central to every culture, lending meaning to our lives by artfully connecting up the events that surround us.  We have previously alluded to the role of the story in our lives in our 19 August 2002 Global Province letter, “Stories R Us.” 

What’s new in 2004 is that the story today not only is at the heart of culture but is also cropping up more and more in business practice as enterprises try to build more authentic connections with their employees, customers, and other constituencies.  In part, this seems to be a reaction to our digital world, where we are assaulted by proliferating bits of information that never seem to add up to anything.  Somebody has to put all this stuff together. 

End of the Line
Apparently the need for a far different global management style is more than a matter of theoretical or academic interest.  Barry Lynn’s End of the Line:  The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation puts forth a very provocative thesis.  With just-in-time inventory controls, outsourcing of production, deregulation in Washington, a supply chain that stretches around the world, and the elimination of redundant, back-up systems and supplies within the corporation, our global corporations are stretched to the limit and vulnerable to the slightest disturbances in their global networks.  In their quest to cut costs, companies have gone beyond lean and become anorexic.  With increasing frequency, deliveries of oil, computer chips, and vital components suffer costly interruptions.  A collaborative spirit probably will become the grease that keeps a creaky system from grinding to a halt.  And we will be measuring the value of companies by the resiliency they show in the midst of breakdowns.  See and  Read an excerpt at

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game lays out how General Manager Billy Beane has used statistics and intellect to put together winning ball clubs at the Oakland Athletics.  Similar systems for measuring value have buttressed the Red Sox under the guidance of GM Theo Epstein.  They have proven that there’s a lot to be had in the dregs of the wine bottle.  This is all part of a tendency of the new breed of managers to get very much more out of limited resources.  Increasingly, we will be using mathematics in several fields of activity to marshal what we need in an environment where the options are constantly changing.

Story, Inc. 
Numerous large companies are now using storytellers in a host of ways.  Hewlett-Packard, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Pixar use story consultants to reinforce corporate beliefs and to teach managers the art of the story and its use in their work.  See “Fabulists at the Firm,” The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2004, p. W11.  Stephen Denning writes about the use of storytelling in knowledge transmission in The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations

“In Britain,” says the Journal, “corporate storytelling is part of a larger fashion for trying somehow to mesh the arts with business.  One prominent advocate is theater director Richard Olivier, who has a second career going as the director of the Olivier Mythodrama Associates Limited.”  The Brits, we think, theorize that storytelling and literary excursions do more than spread knowledge: They see fiction, plays, even poetry as  devices for inspiring creativity.  In this vein one should take a peek at David H. Adams Ltd., whose founder has held poetry seminars with businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic.  See more about Adams at Poetry and Business #45 on Global Province. 

Stories are creeping into advertisements as well.  Years ago an advertising guru was heard to say, “Truth is what really sells.  Now if we could only package truth.”  Short of that, company brand managers now employ fiction to make a point. 

For instance, Ford of Great Britain has hired British “chick-lit” novelist Carole Matthews to bring spice to its Ford Fiesta by weaving it into her books, by doing monthly stories for its website, and by heading up a Ford short story competition.  It’s thought that this tactic will hook 25-to-35 year-old women.  (See The New York Times, March 23, 2004, p.C2).  We would submit that products such as cars are becoming more and more prosaic; that said, multinationals need to ignite the imaginations of their consumers.  For a moment, Ford is making every young Brit feel she is in the fast lane.  See

We have probably had too much to say about stories and their use in business.  To get some of our thinking on this, please look at our letter, “Stories R Us” (August 19, 2002).  Their application in business, speechmaking, religion, and a skillion other areas of life is a little overdone.  The stories tend to run on.  And sometimes the bizstorytellers are mere propagandists.  That is, they are only telling stories to make a big point, not to simply tell a good story.  Art, first and foremost, whether a story or a painting, is to celebrate beauty and life, not to tilt minds or lay out propaganda.  So corporate storytellers often simply bore us to death. 

That said, there is some merit in understanding the story-in-business movement.  For sure it can make data addicts put their data together in a more communicative form.  To this end, you can read Stephen Denning, “Telling Tales,” The Harvard Business Review, May 2004.  In simple terms, he more or less says different kinds of stories will get different results with your audiences.  Perhaps you will tell an uplifting story if you want to get a crowd behind you, and then a somewhat negative tale if you actually want to train or instruct someone.  There’s a whole layer of complication he adds to the article in order to turn it into business-school fare.  As we remember, he was a corporate development officer at some company until he got into stories.  Nobody pays attention to planning and development guys, so they are frustrated and drift into other fields.  Denning got the point:  planning exercises are analytical and connect with nobody.  To build a bridge with people, you must be emotional and intuitive.  Ah ha, he says—tell a story. 

Mr. Denning is prolific and wordy, so you can read more in his The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge Era Organizations and Squirrel Inc.: A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling.  And, if that is not enough, write him at

Bolts out of the Blue
Creativity, claims Ronard S. Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, is all about casting a line for ideas outside your immediate network, finding the askew insight or remapping of your world in somebody else’s backyard.  As quoted in the Times, Burt claims, “The usual image of creativity is that it’s some sort of genetic gift, some heroic act….  But creativity is an import-export game.  It’s not a creation game.”   “As Mr. Burt’s research has repeatedly shown, people who reach outside their social network not only are often the first to learn about new and useful information, but they are also able to see how different kinds of groups solve similar problems.”   (See The New York Times, May 22, 2004, p. A17.)  His book on the subject is called Structural Holes, and it prods us to look into all the corners where we are not networked.  He has used a Web-based tool ( to evaluate thousands of personal networks, probing their insularity and openness amongst other things.  For a bibliography on Burt, see  

His own ideas about creativity square with our own.  In the world city in which we abide, it is hard to truly get outside the network in which we live.  For that reason, we have repeatedly urged our readers to reach into the small countries that have fallen off the map (Iceland, Finland, maybe the Eastern European countries) to find commonplaces that would be unusual here in America.

The Genetic Century
Our correspondent Andrew Tanzer reviews As The Future Catches You, an accessible, convincing book that essentially says we have entered The Genetic Century.  While Enriquez has a clear political tilt, he is very thought provoking.  Apparently he has two more books in the works, and heads up his own genetics firm besides.  The technology gap between countries is, for him, the dividing line today between the rich and poor nations: 

“We are beginning to acquire direct and deliberate control over the evolution of all life forms on the planet … including ourselves,” writes Juan Enriquez in As The Future Catches You (Crown Business, 2001).  In an almost lyrical writing style, Enriquez, formerly a life sciences professor at Harvard Business School, makes a spirited case for genetics becoming the dominant language of this century.  The unraveling of DNA sequences and genetic coding will shake up industries from pharmaceuticals and medical care to food, animal husbandry and cosmetics, argues Enriquez in this important, admirably concise and accessible book. 

The Mexican-bred author demonstrates through startling statistics and examples how digital-genomics convergence, science and technology literacy and the knowledge economy are creating enormous gaps between nations (and within America).  “Science and technology allow people to multiply their productivity much faster than those who do not have the same knowledge or instruments.”  In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution, the income gap between the richest and poorest nations was 5:1; today it is 390:1, and will soon expand to 1,000:1, due to the IT and genetics revolutions.   

Enriquez is particularly devastating when comparing economic development in Latin America with that in East Asia.  Real factory wages in Mexico, which lags in education, skills and knowledge-acquisition, have been stagnant for 25 years; whereas incomes have multiplied 10-20 fold in tech-savvy Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.  Taiwanese and South Koreans register 100 times more patents per capita than Brazilians or Mexicans.  “Many governments have yet to understand the logic of a knowledge-driven economy.  They still do not realize that in the age of information, hard work, by itself, is not enough.”  Even Chile faces a bleak future because it generates and sells little new knowledge, leaving its economy naked to volatile commodity- price movements.  

Enriquez warns that the yawning gap in the Americas is a recipe for instability:  “As the hemisphere falls further and further behind the U.S. in the knowledge economy, it gets harder to reduce income disparity, defend open markets, promote democracy, control immigration, fight guerillas, limit drugs.”

Some of the Greats
The advertising that catches our fancy on  TV, perhaps in a newspaper, maybe even on the Internet, usually turns out to be less than meets the eye.  It turns our head, but more often than not, does not generate a lot of sales or provide enduring vitality for a brand to create some real staying power.  Even when we turn to the list of campaigns that have excited insiders in the advert community over the decades, only a very few seem resilient. The Advertising Age 100 quickly becomes 5 or 6 lone morsels when we pour through the list.  The following ads tickle us, not because they are funny, but because they are so simple and direct that they lodge permanently in our memory: 

  1. Avis, “We try harder,” Doyle Dane Bernbach Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1963
  2. Ivory Soap, “99 and 44/100% Pure,” Proctor & Gamble Co 1882
  3. Hathaway Shirts, “The man in the Hathaway shirt,” Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, 1951
  4. Reagan for President, “It’s morning again in America,” Tuesday Team, 1984
  5. Wendy’s, “Where's the beef?,” Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, 1984
  6. AT&T, “Reach out and touch someone,” N.W. Ayer, 1979

All of them drive home a simple point that the companies—and, of course, the Reagan Campaign—needed to make so that the world could say, “Why, they’re something special!” 

Of the lot, we think the Avis proposition is the best.  In fact, the company should go back to this “Try Harder” motto.  Avis, at its smartest, played the giant killer, a small but agile opponent to the giant Hertz, somebody who had to strive harder because he’s number two.  It’s nice to buy a service—in this case a car rental—from somebody who says he is working overtime for you.  Of course, we should mention that we rented from Avis just the other day, and the cocky counter man gave us driving instructions that cost us time and money.  Yet, at its best, Avis still has a little of the feisty spirit of Robert Townsend.  He once headed it and went on to write Up the Organization, a simple truth little business book.

Executive Development
For half a century, American business has been spending a carload of money on executive education, but nobody quite knows what the outcome should be.  In our own eyes, FDR got it right.  At least in our management practice, executive development is designed to build each executive’s self confidence as well as his belief in his appointed mission on earth. 

That, as Mark McCormack would have said, is not “what they teach you at the Harvard Business School.”  (See What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School).  Business schools, after all, are simply overpriced vocational schools for future business bureaucrats that acquaint teacher and student alike with arcane technique but not with the metaphors to handle uncertain tomorrows. 

Real Role
The wacky, outré, gay wit Quentin Crisp said that we call young actors adventurous and experimental because they try on all sorts of roles that are largely ill suited to their own personas.  Finally, later in life, they discover their one true role which they play brilliantly, no matter the part in which they are cast.  Then we call them accomplished.  It is the same in life he thought:  each of us spends decades discovering our one true role.   

That’s the other main educational task for senior executives.  They must comprehend the role they really should be playing. 

One of our clients spent his whole life as an accomplished engineer at one of America’s largest corporations.  We worked with him and watched his slow transformation as he worked his way towards retirement.  What happened is that he became an outplacement counselor for senior Fortune 500 executives, a 180-degree career switch where he performed gloriously.   

It had always been evident to us that Ed was intended for other things.  A French TV producer, now a New York restaurateur, had done a feature on him for French TV.  It was evident to the talented Parisian and his audience that this absolutely charming, mannerly, totally kind man should be dealing with people and not equations.  If we are truly to pursue our destiny, such dramatic changes are in store for us.  The writer Arthur Koestler dramatically threw over successful careers two or three times, which not only brought out his talent but saved him from being a victim of the Holocaust.  One can read about this in his marvelous two-volume autobiography Arrow in the Blue and Invisible Writing.  All our lives, said Crisp, we are discovering what our true role is.

Ray DeVoe
Easily the best writer out of Wall Street is Jesup and Lamont’s Ray DeVoe.  His DeVoe Report not only colorfully talks about all the national and global events that drive our financial markets but it nicely strays into all-time great movies, the need for very gloomy New England tropistic men to find sunlight in the Caribbean during the winter months, the progressive tendency of our government, our economists, and our think tanks to fudge the numbers on everything from inflation to productivity, and a host of other illuminating subjects.   

There are two types of seer in Wall Street.  The feelgoods tell you about the latest BMW that will put fizz in your life or the concept stock you have to own because it is going through the roof.  Then there are the band of careful thinkers who warn us about potholes in the road.  They flash caution lights.  Our friend Mr. DeVoe is part of the stop, look, and listen brigade.  He helps you see what’s awry. 

For August he has taken time out for his summer reading program, about which he reports on August 17, 2005.  This year his twoweek reading course included Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, Twilight in the Desert by Mathew R. Simmons, Freakanomics by the two Stephens (Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner), Robert Schiller’s Irrational Exuberance, Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, and finally J. Maarten Troost’s Sex Lives of Cannibals.  They are not what the psychiatrists, who go out to the end of Long Island just before Labor Day, would be perusing, but then he hangs out at the Jersey shore. 

His is hardly the light fare we understand Americans want (read about the essence of light and fluffy with Leslie Mooves of CBS in Lynn Hirschberg’s “Giving Them What They Want,” The New York Times Magazine, September 4, 2005, pp30ff).  DeVoe gives us a repast that will leave you morose, rather inert.  Nor, you will notice, is it challenging literature that both ennobles and captures the tragedy of mankind.  It is the flat stuff dreamed up by journalists that largely says we are dying of a 1,000 banalities.  It is the curse of our fourth estate to inflate our sense of futility and to close the book on tomorrow.  This despite the fact that DeVoe is a hail fellow well met, wryly comic, and of diverse interests that escape the workaday world.  In fact, we owe him a bottle of wine. 

The Furtive Economy
One of our readers, inspired by our recent Global Province letter that mused about how the Mafia is able to survive and thrive in an unstable, chaotic world, wrote to remind us of the Peruvian economist Hernando DeSoto who has shown that the lack of sensible property laws in Latin America has terribly held back the members of the  peasantry, making it hard for them to even get micro loans because they do not hold clear title to their land.  They have to scheme in an underground economy because the legal framework does not permit them to advance in a straightforward and efficient way in the visible economic system.  A website deals with his ideas and the whole movement dedicated to creating  the political and legal structure under which real development can occur:  You can read selections there, incidentally, from DeSoto’s book  The Mystery of Capital:  Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.  If the  poor in developing countries cannot raise capital in a reasonably efficient manner, then both they and the nations they live in are bound to slog along.  So it’s not just the mob that has had to devise tactics for dealing with a chaotic, senseless world.

Knowledge Management
In Adventure Capitalist, Jim Rogers recounts his visit to Siberia.  In Chita, for a short while, he fell in with a local mafia boss who wondered how Rogers and Paige had avoided laying out bribes to assorted Russian officials.  “I know you haven’t paid anybody off, because I checked.” 

It’s safe to say that Alexi, the Boss, got the complete scoop on any foreigner who ambled into his domain.  He made it his business to get every last detail about anything he cared about.  His tentacles reached deep enough to give him the skinny.  His efficacy as a local ruler depended on his ability to trace how the levers were pulled throughout Russian officialdom.

Junkyard Dogs.  The New York Times kicked off the baseball season last Sunday, running an article on the money mechanics, which are now at the heart of pro ball.    Michael Lewis, who knows too much about Wall Street, titles his vivid account of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, scrounging for players, The Trading Desk, an apt pun since trading activities now dominate investment bankers such as Goldman Sachs as well as every other aspect of our economy, including professional sports.  (See New York Times Magazine, March 30, 2003, pp. 34ff.)  Beane and his sidekicks have put a value on every player who counts in the major and even minor leagues and have calculated the value of various trading strategies.  That has allowed them to put together a serious pennant contender with a very low payroll (less than 1/3 of the Yankees $133.4 million tab), although it can’t quite grab them a pennant or World Series.  They have achieved success of a sort by understanding the value of the walking wounded, picking up players in their 30s on a downhill slope, who still have a few serious innings left in them.  They recycle the scraps in the junkyard, always buying cheap.  The article is adapted from Lewis’s forthcoming book Moneyball:  The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.  Needless to say, Billy Beane is a far cry from Connie Mack and the glorious days of the Philadelphia Athletics. 

Swensen’s Doubts
If rising interest rates and declining housing fortunes are not enough to make you nervous about your investments, then take a read of David F. Swensen’s new book Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment.  He’s the wizard at Yale who has generated 16.1 percent long term returns, a record other institutional money managers can only dream about.  This has been instrumental in giving the university an endowment in excess of $15 billion as well as a $500 million-plus annual contribution to its operating budget.  He’s an interesting fellow who beefed up the portion of Yale’s portfolio in equity and alternative investments.  We have had calls from more than one chief executive asking how to copy the Swensen approach. 

He had set out in his book to show the individual investor how to copy his approach.  But he has since realized that Joe Doaks simply can’t do it.  Poor Joe does not have Yale’s research.  He can’t access great hedge managers.  All the mutual funds skewer him, overcharging for mediocre or worse performance.  So dour Swensen would basically have us invest in a mix of index funds where one can at least avoid excess transaction charges.   

Don’t take Swensen too seriously.  But take him seriously.  Like all experts, he has fallen into the trap of believing in experts and expert methodology.  Be assured, for instance, that we and our associates, without benefit of inside information, superior research expertise, or Street wizardry, have long exceeded the averages.  So you can, maybe, do better than Swensen thinks you can. 

But his book, coming out now, has great symbolic value at this very time.  It’s a warning to us.  We are now in financial quicksand where it will be easy to lose your shirt, for the world financial markets are truly a mess: they’re in  much worse shape than when we published our last report in early 2004.  Things are so bad that you truly can expect horrendous returns, if you are looking for short term results (i.e., less than 7 years).  Don’t buy for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow; even the hedge funds are now having trouble investing for 2-, 3-, or 5-year cycles.  Look out a decade.  Read about his book at and see Swensen at

Attention Deficit
Our friend Tom Davenport just piped us a copy of The Attention Economy, his must read for anybody who wonders how you communicate in a 21st- century electronic democracy. The title is a misnomer:  he really is dealing with the inattention that is one of the side effects of the Digital Age.  He tells us what we already know but choose to ignore.  Modern technology is pouring a garbled, gigantic stream of undigested information into our lives, making it increasingly difficult to select and focus on the important, making it very tricky to communicate deeply with one’s fellow man.  If obesity threatens the health and physique of 70% of Americans, attention deficit is the disease of the intellect that has 100% of the populace in its thrall.  Our information machines are no different from the dragons in Spenser’s Faerie Queen, disgorging a stew of meaningless printouts and treatises that have made babble the new currency of discourse.  The breakdown of communication brought on by the panoply of new communication technologies is at the essence of our own consulting practice where we strive to create meaning and continuity.  We tilt with a world where the irrelevant has crowded out the important, and flashing signs have dimmed the luster of eternal truths.

My Losing Season
ho should you pick to put on your team if it will take a few years for the good times to roll again? We heard the answer on National Public Radio last week when a somewhat fatuous interviewer queried Pat Conroy about his new book My Losing Season. Conroy’s book has already been panned by a few reviewers (we bought it on discount), and we must own up that it’s a little long. In fact, he got to the heart of the matter more decisively and wittily over the radio. What he needed was a good editor for his book.

Two men, it seems, had a chance of ruining Conroy’s life. His tyrannical father was memorialized in The Great Santini, a novel later made into a very entertaining movie. And then there was Coach Mel Thompson of the Citadel. This coach broke the spirit of the 1966-1967 basketball team, relentlessly using negatives and scorn to enable good players to play very badly. Oddly enough, Conroy--judged to be almost the least talented of the team’s twelve players--was voted the most sportsmanlike and most valuable player. Because he stopped listening to Coach Mel.

This all came to a head in New Orleans, inherently America’s most hopeless city and yet its second most fascinating metropolis. After all, its other name is Bon Temps Rouler. At halftime against Loyola, Thompson lambasted the team again. Then and there, Conroy escaped into manhood:

 “As we took to the court for the second half, I made a secret vow to myself that I would never listen to a single thing Mel Thompson said to me again.”


“With this strange and disloyal insight in a gym in New Orleans, I think I was born to myself in the world. That night in New Orleans a voice was born inside me, and had never heard it before in my entire life.”

That’s what we’re looking for in our next employees. Those who have discovered their own voice in the face of adversity. In business today and for the foreseeable future, employees will get knocked off their feet by imploding markets, unstable bosses, and incredible inertia throughout the political realm. If you’re hiring, you’re looking for men and women who can roll with the punches and who are sustained by an inner voice that keeps them going, keeps them aimed at some distant goal selected by their own powerful intuition.

The Bernstein Index
Peter L. Bernstein is a marvelously literate investment advisor and one-time OSS operative, Air Force captain, college teacher, and researcher at the New York Fed (  For the individual investor, he’s a more important read than Swensen because he has a wider compass.  In 1996, he came out with Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk just as we were entering a world where risk management skills became more critical in running the nation, the economy, and one’s portfolio.  Risk assessment surely would have kept more of us out of some of those Internet stocks that crashed and burned, and would  contain some of the awesome hubris that still afflicts us in this new century.  In 2000 came his Power of Gold, just as it became more and more profitable to plough a bit of your lucre into all sorts of commodities. 

Now, equally timely, is his Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation.  By implication, it tells us and the nation where to invest now.  (See,  This is the story of the building of the Erie Canal—linking the Midwest and the East to Europe and the world through New York State.  Its 300-plus miles made New York the Empire State, and New York City the capital of the world.  Interestingly, it was New York politics and finance that put the canal together, just as it will be developments initiated at the state, instead of federal level, which will account for America’s future greatness in the world.  New York State is sorely in need of another De Witt Clinton—a man who had enough push and vision to realize New York’s Manifest Destiny at the Canal’s opening in October 1825.

Obsolescence Revisited
In past weeks, we have theorized that obsolescence is no longer a valid economic strategy. As Yogi Berra might say, “Breakdowns don’t work.” Then we were talking about products, systems, and the things we build. But it applies as well to human beings. Societies that marginalize large segments of their populations, even for the most charitable of reasons, must become extraneous themselves. An ethic that salutes lethargy will surely lead to a nation that becomes comatose. If John Kennedy were re-writing Why England Slept these days, he would call it Why the West Slept.

Clear Away the Cobwebs
Lord Peter Bauer passed away last week on 2 May, just before he was leaving London for Washington to pick up $500,000 in prize money (Milton Friedman prize from the Cato Institute) for his pathfinding free-market development economics.  Obviously a conservative, he apparently was the sanest voice in the development field, with a healthy skepticism about most of the government-backed schemes for priming the economies of poor nations.  Since they have largely been failures, we do have to listen to him.  A Hungarian, he was another of those bright fellows who escaped Central Europe before World War II got steamy and who brought fresh thinking into British intellectual circles.  His close studies of the rubber industry in Malaya and of the West African trade gave him some detailed views of how things really worked and improved in the Third World.  In his view, development comes from trade and the free exchange of ideas with richer nations.  The best things governments can do are to enforce property rights and keep out of the way.  And he did not favor many of the idee fixes of development, such as population control and income-equalization plans.  See the Economist, May 4, 2002, p. 76.  Also, 6 May 2002, obituary by Lord Ralph Harris.  And finally look for a book review on the Web by Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize winner and student of Bauer, whose economic views are more in line with the conventional economic development establishment.

Bauer's books include Reality and Rhetoric; The Development Frontier; and Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion.

Agile Managers
Richard Reis, a science and engineering administrator out at Stanford, gives sensible advice ( to any careerist who wants to get his head out of the weeds and be truly useful.  “If I could pass on one piece of advice to beginning scientists it would be this:  Don't be afraid to take on tasks that are not part of your official job description even if, at least initially, it appears you won’t get credit for the effort … if you don’t develop peripheral vision you may miss important opportunities....”  Despite what all the textbooks say to us about focus, you need to get distracted now and then.  Reis has written a book on how academia works and how to function in it called Tomorrow's Professor:  Preparing for Academic Careers in Science And Engineering.

Don't Worry about the Copperheads: The Big Bear Will Get You First
Friend Bill of Madison County taught us about the copperheads.  As poisonous snakes go, they're not that venomous.  But the black or brown bear.  Now that's serious business.  It will leave you feeling the worse for wear.

In everyday commerce, it seems to be our destiny to pay attention to a few snakes slithering through the weeds.  Meanwhile, we miss the big hazard or the big opportunity, more often than not, because we fall in love with the sideshow.  For leaders, the main issue, perhaps the only issue, is to discover the big one and to get the troops totally focused it. 

For some 10 years the overwhelming problem for major businesses in this country has been flat or declining markets.  Supply-side economics have produced too much product and too few customers.  Every time you turn around another market hits the skids, even if just yesterday it was growing like topsy turvy.  Most dramatic over the last year has been the dead-end hit by telecommunication carriers and equipment companies.  Suppliers who had been in the fast lane for years suddenly started showing red ink.  This devastation and lack of demand has hit all markets as we sail into the new millennium.

Peter Drucker has noted that in the face of business calamity we have been replacing chief executives at a mad rate, and most of the replacements do as badly as their predecessors.  We have not seen such a high management failure rate since the Civil War, when Lincoln had to fire a host of field commanders until he could find one who would fight.  Drucker thinks our business structures are outdated, and chief executives are still caught up in an old model that isn't working.

That may be true.  But we attribute the failure rate to a tried agenda.  For 20 years, CEOs and their consultants have been hacking away at costs.  That played pretty well until the mid 1990s.  But then it was time for CEOs to get back to revenues, selling things, new markets.  Even so, today you find CEOs cutting and chopping, paring their now-virtual companies down to nothing.  It's time to do business again.  Having missed the big one (finding new markets) in 1990, a host of major companies risk extinction today.  They are at risk because they did not turn to the main opportunity circa 1990.

We can ask why principal leaders didn't see and pursue the big one.  Often it's a lack of imagination.  One of our partners talks about former Governor Edwards of Louisiana, who was once matched against a car dealer.  He damned the man with faint praise.  He said, "Well, if I were going to buy a Ford, I'll surely buy it from him, because he's a good man.  But if I were going to buy 2 Fords, now that's another matter."  The dealer could measure up to little league baseball, but not to the major leagues.

Much the same can be said for one of our United States that was once the bright star of its region.  It has now slid a long ways, currently experiencing negative growth.  The politicians and business potentates have all sorts of excuses and all sorts of forces to blame.  But the truth is that a business oligarchy of very small men coupled with diminished political leadership has left the state in the hole.  Artificial monopolies and restrictive legislation have driven costs too high.  Anemic leadership has not filled empty plants and barren fields with new enterprise.  A venture capitalist in this state has said to use, "We always do two baggers, never a home run."  Nobody has had their eye on the big one, and now the whole state is at risk.

Complexity, incidentally, is the enemy of focus, of effectiveness, of strategic grandeur.  The planning documents of more than one corporation are so infernally complicated that they never get enacted and fail to unify the employees behind a compelling idea.  Years ago Norman Augustine, once of the Defense Department and later head of Martin Merietta, authored Augustine's Laws, the key one being that as more and more electronics were added to a plane, costs grew exponentially and breakdowns mounted at a worse rate.  Six ideas are equivalent to having no idea: complexity brings us to a standstill, not only with airplanes but with whole enterprises.

A few years ago Tony L. White took over PerkinElmer Inc., a flagging instruments company.  Somewhere along the line he said, in effect, "Let's get rid of the old instruments and get in the genome business which our instruments help explore."  This was big and daring and clear.  Now he heads Applera Corporation, the PerkinElmer name and all its instruments long-since gone.  What he did was seize the obvious, using the technology from its Applied BioSystems subsidiary to spring into the world of the genome, and now into drugs.  He has moved from copperheads and to bears. 

Which is to say: Become a big bear, so no bear will get you.  You will get there, if you are looking for something big, and you can say where you are headed on the back of a napkin at lunch with a felt marker.

China Reconstructing
Slowly commentators far and wide are catching up with China's last economic decade, when the leaders out of Shanghai (who are today's national leaders) remade China's industrial economy, with the banks and agriculture yet to come.  Clifford's and Panitchpakdi's China and the WTO highlights some of the meaning of China's accession to the WTO.  Obviously they dwell heavily on the integration of China into the world economy; perhaps as important is the fact that now China's own economy, propelled by WTO, will achieve integration and raise productivity.  On February 5, 2002, the Conference Board came out with its first real study of China, "Reconstructing Chinese Enterprises," which shows how private capital and/or local control generates vastly more productive enterprises, the SOEs (state-owned enterprises) still being the millstones around the Chinese economy.  Shortly we will have a volume on Zhu Rongji, the author of many of these changes.  Humorously enough, major private equity investors, who have been burnt earlier in China, are now sitting on the sidelines, with a solid chance of missing the good times ahead.

Stanley Marcus
We had the pleasure of a very long dinner with Mr. Marcus at the old, reliable Adolphus Hotel in Dallas a month or so ago, just a short walk away from the old flagship Neiman Marcus downtown, which we much preferred to the mall affairs. Accused by us of putting Dallas on the map, he simply said it wasn't true. At 96, as he sighed, his body had deserted him, but the mind was as resilient as ever. We both contemplated some new projects together, all infirmities cast to the side. We learned in the recent New York Times obituary that he was voted the ugliest boy in his high school class, which seems odd to us. Cerebral, fast, capable of telling observations, he was so kinetic that one just did not pay attention to his looks. As a kindness to us he wrote an essay for the Zindart 1999 Annual Report (see called "About the Man Who Collected Everything," which was very appropriate for a Chinese collectibles producer. I gave that title to the words he penned he simply did collect everything and everybody.

Amongst Stanley Marcus's works are Minding the Store; Quest for the Best; The Viewpoints of Stanley Marcus; Stanley Marcus from A to Z; Henry Dreyfus; American Greats; and His and Hers.

Elegance Is Dead
Stanley Marcus, a giant of retailing who gave provincial Dallas a touch of panache, reminds us all that quality is an uphill, Don-Quixote battle against the economics of the 21st century, where fineness is not on the minds of purveyors or customers. In Quest for the Best, he elegizes "The best, in many instances, may not be as good as it used to be, but once manufacturers and retailers realize the size of the market for the best, they will get smart enough to make best better -- not elegant, for elegance is dead."

The very able Nicholas Lardy, frequent spokesman on China and Asia at the Brookings Institution, has a raft of books out telling us what makes Asia tick and what makes it explode.  One study, China's Unfinished Economic Revolution, says the tough stuff is yet to begin.  The combination of bankrupt state banks and effectively bankrupt state companies (SOEs) to which banks lent their dough amounts to an economic time bomb.  Interesting.  But we don't think that's where the trouble really lies.  We think the government will set the banks and companies to rights.  Watch the country, not the cities.  The people in the outback are bust.  Even rural governments are broke.  (See Economist, December 15, 2001, p. 36.)  The real dilemma is not the industrial economy, but agrarian devastation.  For more Lardy books and wisdom, see:

China in the World Economy
Foreign Trade and Economic Reform in China, 1978-1990
Economic Growth and Distribution in China
Agriculture in China's Modern Economic Development
Integrating China into the Global Economy

From Global to Metanational
This book sets forth anew what is really a rather old, shopworn idea.  To be simplistic, what the book tells you to do, whatever your business, is to make sure that you put some listening posts in those parts of the world where all the real talent is.  Go where the action is -- to tap into the people who make great music or listen to what's hot, for instance.  As we've said before, it's as important to recognize that certain locales have generated bests in certain disciplines for decades, and that's where you really have to be:  on the Russian-Polish border for pianists, in Milan for advanced styling, in London for trendiness.  See the New York Times, December 23, 2001, Business, p. 6.

Understanding the Job
It is not clear that most members of boards of directors generally understand what risk is or how to come to terms with it.  As good a starting point as any is Peter L. Bernstein's Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, which threads the upside and downside of risk. Bernstein claims that the basis of modern business and our fecund economic system is the understanding of risk and risk-taking.  By this standard, directors should even be urging more rational risk-taking, while containing unconscious risky behavior that will sink the enterprise.

Jim Clark's Failures
Now it is the right time to read Michael Lewis's The New New Thing, which seems to be an amusing epigraph on Jim Clark's failures.  His Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon ventures plus a few other ventures have really all turned out to be failures that nonetheless lined his pockets.  The most calamitous was his computer-controlled Hyperion, a white whale of a boat that got the better of Ahab Clark.  One must conclude that Clark, and several other Valley boys, were actually much, much better at hype than Hyperion: they were relentlessly adroit at tulipmania, getting transient enterprises insanely valued by manipulation of compliant investment banking and media communities.  Clark is not an engineer but a promoter of virtual Florida real estate.  Where, we must ask, is the beef?

Better Code
"Extreme Programming," or "XP," has become the latest attempt to promote better, faster-built software programs.  A leader is Kent Beck, who has written a book about it called Extreme Programming Explained.  At its core, extreme programming emphasizes extreme collaboration among software writers, contrary to traditional practice.  See Forbes, July 9, 2001, p. 142.  Also see

"China on My Mind"
This is the title of this year's baccalaureate address by Richard C. Levin, Yale's president.   See Yale Alumni Magazine, Summer 2001.  Its main importance was that it documented Yale's historically deep connection with China, dating back to 1854 when Yung Wing, a Chinese student, graduated from Yale.  Yale-in-China dates back to the turn of the century (1901).  A long article elsewhere in the magazine, "Sticking with China," provides some of Yale's current Chinese involvements.  The most interesting footnote is that the Dean of the School of Management, Jeffrey Garten, has put China very much on center stage, calling it "the second most important country in the world" and placing it at the top of the list in his book, The Big Ten: The Big Energy Markets and How They Will Change Our Lives.

Concept of the Corporation
Drucker did this book when he was still working his way into the pantheon of geniuses.  We wish now he'd do the book over.  At this moment, when "stock-holder capitalism" sits on top of the whole world, persons of good will are questioning the limited view of capitalism and limited view of the corporation it entails.  It is forgotten now that the "corporation" was originally a creation of the state, granted special privileges and immunities, because the state and the nation expected the commonwealth, in turn, to reap a host of benefits.  In the second-quarter 2001 issues of Strategy and Business, pp. 119-26, Booz-Allen and Hamilton's tomb-like magazine, editor Randall Rothenberg interviews Arie de Geus, management thinker and retired planning director at Shell.   In The Living Company and elsewhere, de Geus argues that the very purposeful corporation gains major competitive advantage from its sense of purpose and, in consequence, survives longer.  "Success depends on the ability of its people to learn together and produce new ideas."  In this view, corporate success comes from nurturing human capital, not catering to financial capital.  This is, we think, just one of the ways in which corporations in it for the long term need a sense of themselves that is larger than the 24-hour frame of the financial markets.

David Whyte
Heidi Schuessler has a long article about him in The New York Times, June 20, 2001, p. C2.  He gives readings of the good guys, writes some himself, and makes a living preaching poetry to corporate managers on the lecture circuit.  Ms. Schuessler thinks his pitch is to tap into disillusioned managers, but, it seems to us, he merely says that life and death are bigger than the office.  He has a couple of books, admittedly with long-winded titles:

How about Work and Play, Mr. Whyte?

Forbes and Strategic Alliances
On May 21, Forbes did a strategic alliance special issue which is not profound but does contain some provocative tidbits.  For instance, in rating the 2000 alliance heavyweights (number of alliances), we find that six of the top ten companies worldwide are Japanese (the trading companies and the tech companies) while four are American.  Finally, in 2000, alliance-building became as frantic an activity as mergers and acquisitions.  Peter Pekar and John Harbison have co-authored a book, Smart Alliances, that apparently recognizes that alliances have become a favored tool for accelerated corporate growth.  Forbes claims old-line industries--financial services, forest products, metals and retailing--don't get it, with companies in these sections proudly going their own separate ways.

Me and Thou
The Asian Foundation in San Francisco has published this year two volumes on America's role in Asia.  They are compendiums by experts on America in Asia--from both Asian and American perspectives.  The Asians' last recommendation--that American universities "strengthen their Asian studies programs" is probably the most interesting comment from across the ocean.  Surprisingly, the American experts are well down their list--to recommendation 10--before they get to their two economic recommendations, even though economics are the crux of both stability and progress not only for Asia but for the world.  

China's Century
China's Century: The Awakening of the Next Economic Powerhouse by Laurence Brahm, a lawyer and consultant in Beijing, flags the obvious for us--but is an obvious fact that many Westerners are ignoring.  With admittance to WTO, China is on track to become the world's number two economy.  The book's roster of contributors includes everybody under the sun, from Zhu Rongji, Premier of the People's Republic of China, and a raft of Chinese government officials, to sundry ambassadors to China, heads of multinationals with substantial operations there, consultants, journalists, lawyers, etc.  Included are the financiers who are the major enablers of Western entry into China, such as Peter Sutherland of Goldman Sachs, Robert Theleen of ChinaVest, and Alexander Rinnooy Kan of ING Group.  "Today China is driving forward its policy of guided market economy, making what is ironically fast becoming one of the most laissez-faire economies in the world today."

Free Trade and Economic Strength
Virginia Postrel reviews the work of Stephen L. Parente and Edward C. Prescott, whose Barriers to Riches (MIT Press, 2000) argues that poor countries stay poor because "some groups are benefiting by the status quo."  The authors suggest it is not knowledge but narrow self-interest that keeps nations from advancing their productivity.   It's not savings or education that makes the difference, but encrusted interest groups and outdated business practices.  Without free trade, local barons can block new practices, since better competitors can't invade their protected markets.  What would be as interesting is an examination of our own United States. Clearly economic development has been retarded in several areas--notably the South--because of anti-competitive practices, embedded in the law, which permit high-priced monopoly conditions to prevail.  See The New York Times, May 17, 2001, p. C2.

Porter on Japan
Michael Porter, Harvard's apostle of competitive strategy, is out with a book--Can Japan Compete? (Perseus, 2000)--which largely sums up what we already know.  Japan's stagnation did not just arise from financial excesses but came largely from structural economic problems, he argues.  This is rehashed in CFO Magazine, May 2001, pp. 60-66.  Somewhat more interesting is his notion that "Japanese companies are weak at strategy.  In fact, most companies don't have strategies.  Essentially, they are competing on best practice."  Of course, this happens to be true of most nations.  If the nation has a good economic strategy, then a company often doesn't need one.  But if national policy is awry, the corporate managers suddenly have to become wily strategists.

The Attention Economy
This book, co-authored by Tom Davenport, a thoughtful consultant with Accenture, is due out in hardback June 1. Of course, a more accurate nomenclature might be the Inattention Economy. Essentially Davenport says we are all being mowed down by messages and hyperactivity--a result of the digital economy. We are so busy that we can't pay real attention to anything, much less focus on what's important. We've posted one or two of Tom's other books below so you can get acquainted with him.

Prakash Shimpi's Risk Management
Public since 1993, United Grain Growers (Toronto Exchange: UGG) has had to identify all its corporate risks as a result of recommendations in the 1994 Dey Report from the Toronto Stock Exchange.  It uncovered 47 in all, from fluctuations in grain volume to environmental hazards. Working with broker Willis Corroon and Swiss Re, it developed a risk-management package to deal with all of them.  By dealing with all of them at once, it reduced its insurance costs, no longer insuring piecemeal.  More importantly, it hedged against variable volumes in the grain markets.  And, by smoothing earnings, it has been able to take on more debt. 

Some of the thinking that lies behind this approach is summed up by Swiss Re's Prakash Shimpi in Integrating Corporate Risk Management.  Remarkably, or so Shimpi claims, only a small percentage of major U.S. companies looks at risk comprehensively and relates it successfully to containing the cost of capital.

No Time for Renewal
Risk has become too important a topic to leave to the insurance carriers, especially as the capital and insurance markets converge.  Risk will be, we predict, the primary obsession of business in 2001.  We will be dealing with more than brown-outs in California and earthquakes in India.  Not the least of the risks is human breakdown.  In his new book, The Future of Success, Robert Reich suggests that the Internet is a boom to consumers, but it's wreaking havoc in the life of the nation, with all the populace caught on a treadmill where there is no time for personal renewal.

Understanding Globalization?
If Y2K was never really a threat, the deterioration of our infrastructure has been a growing, gnawing risk.  It presents massive business opportunity, because we have far more to rebuild than our electric plants.  But there will be lots of risk, as we begin to tackle some of our constitutional arrangements as well as a host of other governing compacts that have outlived their useful life.  We say “rebuilding” the infrastructure, but not “restoring” it.  Our plant is not only worn out:  it’s the wrong structure for the global age we have entered.  Global economics, for instance, favors lots of small generators, not just the few big ones of the monopoly era.  Global trade as a percentage of GDP has doubled in the 90’s.  Like it or not, this is the Global Age for the U.S. and we have to hitch our wagon to the Global Economy.

That’s what Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has written about in his long, repetitive, meandering bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization.  While you don’t have to read the book, you do have to accept that we are in the global swim, and we have to get ourselves deeper into the sport.  Friedman, perhaps wrongly, thinks we are leading the global charge, but we suspect it is Singapore, Finland, Sweden, etc. that are most globalized and are most setting the global agenda.

Fingleton In Japan
Journalist Eamon Fingleton did an odd little tome with me years ago on shareholder freebies (still a great idea) and then took off for Japan.  His view from the other shore should not cause us to gloat over our "new" economy.   First, he did Blindside: Why Japan Is Still on Track to Overtake the U. S. by the Year 2000 (1995).   Now he's just out with In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (1999).  Probably his economics are not too profound, but his common sense should wake us up about virtual reality.  I know of at least one Internet CEO who wants to be on a "hard-industry" board, because he knows what he's doing is not quite real. 

Collect Early and Pay Late
Richard Levin, professor emeritus at University of North Carolina's business school, wrote a finance text, Buy Low, Sell High, Collect Early, and Pay Late, for Prentice Hall back in 1983. He figured a witty title might sell a few extra copies.  We think "Collect Early and Pay Late" would have done the trick even better.  In any event, if you understand the title, you can pretty much skip the finance course.  You usually "buy low" by paying early.   By stealing this dictum from Levin, we, of course, will "pay never," which is yet another way to go.

Turning Industries Upside Down
Clayton M. Christensen, associate professor at Harvard, has written the season's most important business book--The Innovator's Dilemma (Harvard Business School Press).  He thinks there are a lot of technologies begging to be put to work, that big companies won't sponsor, because it will destroy their current franchises.   So entrepreneurs have to get the deed done.  Joseph Schumpter called this "creative destruction."  For a quick look at how this will revolutionize some industries, see Business Week, July 26, 1999, p. 6.  

A Catalog of Bests
America's most renowned merchant--Stanley Marcus--no longer directs the famous Nieman-Marcus catalog.  So now he's jointly authored a book on all the little things and little inventions that got America to the millennium.  See Robert B. Wilson and Stanley Marcus, American Greats (Public Affairs, 1999).

Best Professional Brochure Ever
A long time ago, when less complicated minds ran consulting firms, CEOs knew how to sell their wares in simple ways.  Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge, for instance, proved that it could solve technical problems for you by doing a booklet on turning a sow's ear into a silk purse.  It then proceeded to do just that.   Literally.  See On the Making of Silk Purses from Sow's Ears: A Contribution to Philosophy (Arthur D. Little, Inc., 1921; reprinted 1966). 

Frankfurt, the Financial Capital
Today, maybe the most innovative financial exchange in Europe -- perhaps in the world -- is located in Frankfurt.  This should not surprise us, because its history as a financial center dates back to the Middle Ages.  Today it is the home of the European Central Bank.  If you read German, learn more about Frankfurt as a rising star in Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich's Frankfurt as a Financial Centre (Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 1999).  Also see The Economist, March 18, 2000, p. 9.

Business Philosophers
The late Paul Tillich carefully distinguished between psychological and existential problems.  After years of dealing with dysfunction, businessmen are using philosophers to deal with purposeful functionality.  The capitalist Socratics have had an association since April called The American Philosophical Practitioners Association, now 175 strong.  It includes Lou Marinoff, author of Plato Not Prozac: Applying Philosophy to Everyday Problems (Harper Collins, 1999).  Working along the same lines but more focused on businesses exclusively is Tom Morris, author of If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business (Henry Holt & Company, 1997).   Naturally, Dr. Morris has an institute, the Morris Institute for Human Values.  See "If Plato Ran His In-laws Insurance Company," The New York Times, January 5, 2000, p. C6.  All in all, this philosophical bent can get business and businesspeople to clarify their goals, half the battle in achieving more nimbleness.

Quick Thinking
Nobel-prize winner Herbert Simon believes human intuition is really "pattern recognition."  For sure, this can be learned--and maybe even taught--but it's still hard work.  To be a world-class pattern-recognizer, you must put in "at least ten years of hard work--say, 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year."  (See "Flash of Genius," by Phillip E. Ross, Forbes, November 16, 1998, pp. 98-104).  Or better yet, see Simon's books, wich include:

King of the Knowledge-Makers
In 1997, Ikujiro Nonaka returned to University of California at Berkeley as the Business School's first ever professor of knowledge.  Co-author of The Knowledge Creating Company (Oxford University Press, 1995) and dean of a knowledge science department at Japan's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, he's a bit different from the knowledge captains who coach large corporations.  He puts less emphasis on databases and the MIS paraphernalia these people over-espouse.  And he puts emphasis on creativity and learning atmosphere as the means by which companies can foster big ideas.  See The Economist, May 31, 1997, p. 63.

American Entrepreneurs Abroad: Heinecke
Andrew Tanzer, our colleague in Hong Kong, waxes poetic about the considerable effect American entrepreneurs have had in the Asian business scene: 

There’s no shortage of transplanted Asians who have enriched the U.S. economy through importing entrepreneurial skills.  In the computer industry, for instance, Jerry Yang co-founded Yahoo, Charles Wang started Computer Associates, and let’s not forget Wang Laboratories’ founder An Wang.  What’s less understood is that the trade in entrepreneurism is two-way: many American entrepreneurs have built huge businesses across the Pacific.  In Hong Kong, for instance, Robert Miller and Charles Feeney founded Duty Free Shoppers, an industry giant now controlled by LMVH; Nebraskan Merle Hinrichs started NASDAQ-listed Global Sources, a highly profitable and leading electronic marketplace; William E. Connor II has quietly constructed an impressive supply-chain management/buying agency for a list of blue-chip clients including Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma and Land’s End. 

Over in Thailand, William Heinecke has made his fortune in fast foods, hotels and branded-goods agencies.  Heinecke, the son of a U.S. military journalist who worked overseas for the Marine Corps’ Leatherneck magazine, paid his adopted country the ultimate compliment: he abandoned his U.S. citizenship and became a Thai.  His The Entrepreneur: 25 Golden Rules for the Global Business Manager, told with Jonathan Marsh (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), is an accessible, practical blend of memoirs and primer for the aspiring entrepreneur.  

No arcane, academic tome, The Entrepreneur offers simple, commonsensical and humorous advice on topics such as crisis management, hiring and firing, and time management.  One of the most attractive aspects of the book is that, unlike so many self-important and narcissistic American CEOs, Heinecke relishes poking fun at his own blunders, which adds credibility to his story.  For example, Heinecke admits that a Thai businessman beat him hands down in supermarkets in Bangkok.  His competitor’s Villa chain had fresher produce and superior inventory control.  “I knew we were in trouble when my wife told me her friends preferred to shop at Villa….  We got out as soon as we could, poorer but wiser….  Never confuse qualities of determination with those of stubbornness and stupidity.” 

Indeed, humility and high emotional intelligence are clearly two of Heinecke’s strong suits.  A high school graduate, Heinecke obviously listens well, learns constantly and makes an art of “OPB”—working with other peoples’ brains.  He knows his weaknesses and hires the best people he can find to compensate.  “Too many business people waste time on tasks to which they’re ill-suited….  Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb at….  If you keep hiring people who are smarter than you in important areas, you will build an organization that is very strong.” 

Obviously a good manager of people, Heinecke stresses that a leader must cut loose the underperformers.  Firing “involves coming to terms with your own failings.  You have to admit that you made a mistake by hiring the person in the first place.  But if you don’t fire mediocre performers, you are doomed to failure as an entrepreneur.  Just as excellence breeds excellence, mediocrity breeds mediocrity.” 

Like many successful entrepreneurs, crisis and adversity seem to bring out the best in Heinecke.  He bounces back with the resilience of a Thai kick-boxer who keeps scraping himself off the mat.  For instance, he weathered the Asian Crisis of 1997-98, whose epicenter was in Thailand; he survived a bruising battle with Goldman Sachs over control of a Bangkok luxury hotel and picked himself up after losing the Pizza Hut franchise following a vicious battle with YUM, the U.S. parent company. 

And like many entrepreneurs, Heinecke succeeds by thinking differently.  He introduced pizza to Thailand, a nation of spicy cuisine and no tradition of eating cheese.  “Eating pizza in an air-conditioned, American-style restaurant became a perfect symbol of increasing purchasing power and changing consumer attitudes,” he explains.  He brought traditional Thai architecture to hotels and condos in Thailand when local developers were looking overseas for bad architectural ideas.  “Developers looked at concrete blocks in Hawaii and then built carbon copies in Thailand.  Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out something that is staring everyone in the face—Thai architecture is breathtakingly beautiful.” 

Like Richard Branson, Heinecke is an adventurer who flies his own planes and helicopters and competes in car races.  He makes no apologies for disappearing sometimes for weeks.  Indeed, he sees a management lesson here: “This is good for me as well as my executives, who have to operate without my presence.”




Philosopher's Holiday, Irwin Edman (11-11-15)

Shadow Box , Michael Cristofer (11-11-15)

Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck (6-17-15)

A Fine Romance, Candice Bergen (4-22-15)

A Death in Summer, Benjamin Black (9-25-13)

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, Massimo Pigliucci (9-25-13)

The Luck of the Bodkins, P.G. Wodehouse

The Moviegoer - Walker Percy

Understanding Poetry. Cleanth Brooks. (10-12-11)

The Principles of Uncertainty. Maira Kalman. 2007. (06-08-11)

Lord Dunsany – Dean Spanley – 2008 Also see this write-up. (3-16-11)

John Lawton - Little White Death – 2007 (02-09-11)

Ross Macdonald - Black Money - 1996

Angela Thrikell - Cheerfulness Breaks In – 1996

The delightful Angela Thirkell, a manneristic and prolific writer about small-town England throughout the first half of the 20th century, wrote one novel that speaks to the dilemma we are considering here. In Cheerfulness Breaks In her ensemble of characters deal with the coming of World War II  (“of course, it will never happen”) and the comings and goings in a village as young men are carried off to London and the fields of war.  What’s key is that everybody shoulders the burden well, goes on with life, and even has parties and sprinkles of light amidst the storm.  There are constant spots of cheer to include several engagements and marriages.  Dastardly people and no-gooders such as the Gissings eventually disappear and never really manage to soil the community.  That is, the heart of the people is in the right place.  (11-10-10)

Herman Melville - The Confidence Man - 1857

Melville, who had a trying career and who often harbored gloomy thoughts, owned up to the need for faith and belief in his last and best novel—The Confidence Man. Therein is a widely quoted passage where a traveler advises the skeptical how to get along in life:
   "You are an eaves-dropper."
   "Well. Be it so."
   "Confess yourself an eaves-dropper?"
   "I confess that when you were muttering here I, passing by, caught a word or two, and, by like chance, something previous of your chat with the Intelligence-office man; -- a rather sensible fellow, by the way; much of my style of thinking; would, for his own sake, he were of my style of dress. Grief to good minds, to see a man of superior sense forced to hide his light under the bushel of an inferior coat.
Note: [24.6] -- Well, from what little I heard, I said to myself, Here now is one with the unprofitable philosophy of disesteem for man. Which disease, in the main, I have observed -- excuse me -- to spring from a certain lowness, if not sourness, of spirits inseparable from sequestration. Trust me, one had better mix in, and do like others. Sad business, this holding out against having a good time. Life is a pic-nic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool. To come in plain clothes, with a long face, as a wiseacre, only makes one a discomfort to himself, and a blot upon the scene.
Note: [24.7] Like your jug of cold water among the wine-flasks, it leaves you unelated among the elated ones. No, no. This austerity won't do. Let me tell you too -- en confiance -- that while revelry may not always merge into ebriety, soberness, in too deep potations, may become a sort of sottishness. Which sober sottishness, in my way of thinking, is only to be cured by beginning at the other end of the horn, to tipple a little." (11-10-10)

Yoko Ogawa –The Housekeeper and the Professor – 2009 (09-01-10)

Angela Thirkell – Private Enterprise – 1947 (02-24-10)

Michael Murphy – Golf in the Kingdom – 1972 (02-10-10)

Living Well is the Best Revenge - Calvin Tompkins - 1998 (11-11-09)

Moby Dick – Herman Melville– 2008 (1851) (08-26-09)

Flannery: A Life Of Flannery O’Connor – Brad Gooch --  2009 (04-15-09)

General Batiste’s Aggressive Retreat
“On June 19, the day before the change-of command ceremony, he filled out a retirement form on his computer and faxed it to his four-star commander in Germany….  The next day, Gen. Batiste, speaking at the ceremony, began his protest…”  See “The Two-Star Rebel,” Wall Street Journal, May 13-14, 2006, pp. A1-A5, where you can read a long and arresting account of how John Batiste, a general on the way to the top, turned down his next star and the 2d most important Army post in Iraq, to follow his conscience.  Unlike other protesting generals who have howled about Donald Rumsfeld’s misdeeds from the comfort of their easy chairs in retirement, this soldier gave up the career chase because he could no longer bear Rummy’s gross mismanagement of the war.  Again and again, men and women of superior talent and keen intelligence are facing the same dilemma—how does one act with honor and conviction when caught up in a world that’s lost its head. 

The Bard William Shakespeake touched on this very question in several of his later works, but in none more tellingly than Troilus and Cressida.  There, at Troy, we slither through a war where nobody—Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Troilus, Cressida—emerges heroic, and to quote a famous line, “all the argument is a whore and a cuckold.”  All become but buffoons, and the times make a mockery of love, honor, and loyalty.  (5/24/06)


Two Years before the Mast
In Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years before the Mast, we read a high-born ship-hand’s account of his journey on the Pilgrim around South America, to the West Coast, and back to Boston.  Despite his successful career thereafter as lawyer and in government, this journey is said by some to have been the high point of his life.  There’s an insistent need in men and women, no matter how repressed, to break out of their cubicles in order to discover the destiny that is hidden from them by the shroud of society.  We know a chap who did a career of forty years in New York City but who feels life only really began when at mid-life he worked in Kazahkastan and other points in Central Asia.  (5/22/06)

Anybody, except maybe a jealous poet, knows that you don’t run down your industry, for fear you will spoil the business for everybody.  In 2002, Garrison Keillor came out with an anthology called Good Poems.  It sold well, and most in the field said it was an okay effort—except for August Kleinzahler who gave it a vicious review in the April 2004 issue of Poetry.  Now Keillor’s out with Good Poems for Hard Times, and we are uncertain what furies Kleinzahler will loose.  See his diatribe in Poetry, April 2004, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please.”  All the poems in both books have been read on Keillor’s PBS show.  We must all be grateful that Keillor and others are taking poetry out of the academy and putting it on the airwaves.  (1/4/06)

Scotch Is Better
Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times claims “the meaning of poetry is to give courage.”  In his critique of the book, David Orr say it’s not so: “That is not the meaning of  poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch.”  (12/21/05)

Grey Flannel Poet
Spencer Reece, assistant manager of Brooks Brothers in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is finally reaping success and renown from his writings.  His The Clerk’s Tale, a collection of his poems, has been published and is winner of the Bakeless Prize.  The title poem is set in the Mall of America store where he first started with Brooks.  See The New York Times, May 9, 2004, Styles, pp.1-2.

Man’s Fate
Andre Malraux was quite a fellow.  An adventurer, he careened about the globe and was threatened with quite a bit of hard time for stealing artifacts in Indochina.  Lurching from Left to Right in politics, he trafficked a bit with Mao, Chaing Kai Chek, and other creators of Greater China and the Asia we know today.  Later he served in the French Resistance.  After World War II, he did a few stints with DeGaulle as Minister of Information and Minister of Cultural Affairs when he cleaned up French monuments and hobnobbed with the likes of Jackie Kennedy.  His career is all the more remarkable since Tourette’s Syndrome took hold of him in childhood and had him in its grasp for life.

Along the way, he did a string of novels to include the renowned Man’s Fate, as well as The Royal Way and The Conquerors.  He is a fast, fun, easy read; no wonder so many were swept up by him, even if his tales added too much embroidery to his life and deeds. Here one discovers that he thought action in the face of death lent nobility and vitality to life, but that nothing justifies that final act of the gods in which death finally snatches a person from life’s battles.  “Art,” he thought, “is a revolt against fate.”  The threat of death sharpens our spirits and our intellect, but nothing can really justify the death sentence that is the handmaiden of mortality.  Death was his consuming theme.  For him, “Death made man a man. Man does not make death.  Death is a mask man wears.”

The Limbo Dance
The Limbo is not only a state of exile in the land of nowhere.  It is also a dance from Trinidad where lithe dancers make their way under a stick that is moved closer and closer to the ground.  It’s hard to do, and is only for those with the most limber of bodies, which is not one of our complaints.  As well, the dance symbolizes how hard it is to get out of Limbo—in spirit, in politics, in business.

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about his conception of hell in his play No Exit.  The players discover slowly that there is no getting away from each other as the dialogue unfolds.  This, for Sartre, is what hell is all about—when there is no getting on with our future, as we get caught in a celluloid frame where the movie never advances.

Fortunately Limbo is not that way.  There’s a way out.  If we will give up the gnashing of teeth that a media-driven age has fostered.  If we will stop repeating the moment we are in and decide instead to explore the uncertain world ahead.

Tristram Shandy
Often enough, people say “life imitates art.”  But what we are learning about, and where the Italians excel, is the merger of life and art.  It’s a seamless act where we do not know where one ends and the other begins.  Such is the case with the immensely funny British comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a 2006 release incorporating a farce about the making of Tristram but, as well, a retelling of the actual Sterne novel.  It is this interpenetration of art and life in Italy that puts that country in the vanguard of the West.  (5/8/06)

Anthony Trollope
Perhaps it is this cultivated atmosphere that moved one of our number on a recent Nippon evening to bring Trollope into our discussions.  Many of us had not given him a great deal of thought, but we realized, as we talked, that this post office surveyor turned novelist, son of a failed barrister and writer mother, enjoys great currency even in the present day.  We thought of Trollope presentations on public TV and remembered that they were a great deal easier to take than say Jane Austen, also a writer about domestic intrigue.  Trollope is the right kind of culture: very, very accessible but not without insight.  The Trollope Society, very active on both sides of the Great Atlantic, is just one sign of his ongoing appeal.  Several of our readers write to tell us they are Trollopians: 

I went on a terrific jag of Trollope reading about 3 years ago, before retirement.  The voice of the narrator amused me greatly.  In Flaubert, it is restrained, acting with an invisible hand, not foreshadowing what comes next.  But Trollope will even tell you that the mini-crisis of the moment is to be overcome, and things will turn out right for the lady in question.  –French professor 

The nearest I ever came to reading him back then was when I learned my
expense account tabulation at a MAJOR NATIONAL PUBLICATION, after my first month’s effort, was rejected—because it was too low!  I was told to take people to lunch every day, whether I had a receipt or not; whether they were real or not.  I went for long, literary solo lunches. By the end of my first year writing there I had exhausted all the characters in Dickens and started on Hardy.  Trollope would have been next, but I moved on to Merrill Lynch. –Journalist and now a Trollope reader. 

Trollope and Dickens used to be my favourite reading for train journeys.  Both were nice and long.   Trollope was not too demanding, so you could pause, look at the scenery, and then return anew to the story.  His are stories with a little social commentary.  – Management consultant who has even put in some time in Ireland, like Trollope 

So what makes Trollope so accessible? 

An Escape into the Ordinary.  In the 18th-century novel, the workings of society unfolded, and we saw how it got in and out of its scrapes.  But the 19th is more about the development of character and about those misfirings of the brain circuits that lead, temporarily, to plot complication.  The ambivalence and copious emotional repression we find there surely set the stage for Freud and the Age of Anxiety. 

For some creatives, art is an escape from the ordinary; for others, it is an intensification of it.  We are fond of saying that art should be a way of dealing with life for those who do not want to accept it as it is.  Trollope had it both ways.  He was so smitten with his characters and the very act of writing that he distanced himself from the rest of us.  But, oddly enough, whether talking about the upper classes (“the Upper Ten Thousand”) or the middling classes, he grappled in detail with commonplace affairs.  He had, as James said, a fine “appreciation of the usual.” 

Can You Forgive Her?  Written after the Barsetshire novels, just at the beginning of the Pallisers series, it is a rather finely constructed work, done at the midpoint of his career.  It turns on Alice’s jilt of Grey and their subsequent coming together:

I shall never cease to reproach myself.  I have done that which no woman can do and honour herself afterwards.  I have been—a jilt. 

But after much complication, Grey is able to press his love on her: 

Of course, she had no choice but to yield.  He, possessed of power and force infinitely greater than hers, had left her no alternative but to be happy. 

In the end it is a love story laced with that dialectical perverseness of the human spirit that keeps us apart and finally brings us together.  Not at all a monumental matter, but terribly important to the individual and to the race.  It’s a love story, once fondly reviewed by John Bayley, who, as we have said, is no slouch at true love himself.  Yes, we can forgive Alice for her ricochet relationship with Grey, because forgiveness and comity are the stuff of existence when we are at our best.  Trollope finds a richness in small matters.

The Big Sleep
Shakespeare has more or less cornered the fitful sleep market, but a few fellas have given him a run for the money in this the Age of Freud and Nuclear Fission.  Certainly a mid-20th-century hallmark in this regard is Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, transformed into a 1946 Howard Hawks cinema noir movie that was riddled with talent (Hawks, Bogart, novelist William Faulkner) and toughguy (and gal) repartee. 

‘Sleep’ here means death and conjures up the corruption, perversion, and murder that is woven through plot and subplot as we puzzle our way through the movie.  But, really, the narrative moves through a nether world halfway between death and life, sleep and insomnia, that General Sternwood describes to Marlowe, the private eye: 

“You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life—crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it’s hardly worth the name.  I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider.  The orchids are an excuse for the heat.  Do you like orchids?” 

So Much Laughter, So Many Tears
Philip and Julius Epstein were a wonderful Hollywood writing team who wrote Casablanca, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Arsenic and Old Lace.  The latter two are simply hilarious movies, particularly The Man Who Came and stayed and stayed.  We saw it yet again two nights ago on the television, and once again it left us in stitches.  It’s amazing because the dialog is fast-paced, one comic dart chasing another.  We vowed to add it to the permanent collection of family movies to be viewed by all for a lift of the spirits.  If you see it, then you’ll wonder, as you watch today’s TV fare, whatever happened to family entertainment. 

But the Epstein family itself experienced so many tears as compensation for all this laughter.  The brothers, during the Red Scare, got the attention of the House Un-American Committee.  And there was ample neurosis to go around in this talented but disturbed family.  One can feel the pain in the latest novel of Philip’s son Leslie, who has just penned San Remo Drive:  A Novel from Memory, which captures some of the ache of those times yet conveys that life always goes on, even in the burlesque, bizarre atmosphere of the West Coast.  You can squeeze so many tears out of its sunshine and laughter.

Buffoonery in Botswana 
Alexander McCall Smith is a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University.  Born in Zimbabwe, one-time teacher of law in Botswana, he has written 50 books about everything under the sun.  But surely he is best known now for his three mysteries (mostly humor and not very mysterious) featuring Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  We have just finished Tears of the Giraffe, and will shortly be going on to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Morality for Beautiful Girls, all 3 of which have been nominated for sundry prizes and have found their way on to various bestseller lists.  Picture, for instance, the competition at the office between Mma Makutsi, the secretary, and some roving chickens:  “By rights, this tiny building with its two small windows and its creaky door should be a henhouse, not a detective agency.  If they outstared her, perhaps, she would go, and they would be left to perch on the chairs and make their nests in the filing  cabinets.  That is what the chickens wanted.”  Too much seriousness is not to be allowed into this part of Africa.  We gather from these books that this is ultimately a matriarchal society where the women are a lot smarter and, one way or another, are really running the place.  And, as of April 2003, a fourth volume is out, The Kalahari Typing School for Men:  More from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Big, Unpopular Ideas
What we’ve said here is that the way to keep your spirits up in hard times when everybody else is taking Prozac is to swim upstream, while others let the current carry them down into the abyss.  Ultimately, this may lead you to propagate a big, unpopular idea on which the powers that be heap a load of scorn.  In one of his plays, probably Enemy of the People, Ibsen talked of the importance of the compact minority, knowing full well that received opinion is often very, very wrong.  We’re at a transition point now where unpopular ideas are very important.  Some of these are found on our website under “Big Ideas.”

Best Italian Mystery Writer
We’re partial to Inspectors of all varieties—English (Morse or Dagliesh), Irish (McGarr), and now Sicilian (Inspector Montalbano).  The Montalbano series is by a great fellow, Andrea Camilleri, but you will have to forgive the English translation of The Shape of Water, which we have just completed.  It’s a quick read without the usual mushy philosophical overwash that runs through much Italian prose, and it’s a great laugh.  Nobody is really very guilty, but everybody, including the Inspector, is up to Italian shenanigans, which is the only way really of dealing with a hopelessly contorted political system that can easily send rather innocent people to prison and let the Mafiosi go free.  The first duty, then, of an ethical Inspector is to destroy evidence in order to protect the innocent.  Camilleri is a big hit in Europe, but he is only gradually seeping into North America.  Try also The Terra-Cotta Dog:  An Inspector Montalbano Mystery.

Rumpole on Legal Reformers
“Our present masters seem to have an irresistible urge, whenever they find something that works moderately well, to tinker with it, tear it apart and construct something worse, usually on the grounds that it may offer more ‘consumer choice.’”  Yes, “more choices for consumers” has been the rallying cry of educators, politicians, business innovators, and fiddlers of all sorts who busily add new, expensive options to our lives that we never asked for.  Meddlers all. 

These lines comes from Rumpole of the Bailey in “Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent.”  Rumpole, barrister and ever comedic defense lawyer, is the creation of John Mortimer.  He is resolved not to change things in his own life, never wanting to try civil cases (even if the money is so much better), never desiring to act the prosecutor and never to have his clients plead guilty, for the prisons are much too over-crowded already. Rumpole knows his role in life. 

We are not sure that John Mortimer or Leo McKern do.  Mortimer does try other bits of writing, but nothing provides the guffaws on every page that Rumpole’s antics and barbs do evoke.  McKern, who tried a variety of parts in the English theater, played Rumpole in the long-running series on public TV.  Both were clearly meant to serve life sentences solely in thrall to Rumpole. 

Probably Quentin Crisp, the English wit and netherworld figure, monologist and author of the Naked Civil Servant, had it right when he said everybody had one role to play in life and we all spend our lives discovering that one part we are meant to do.

 Pick up any Rumpoleeach is wonderful.  Some titles in the series include:

Best Bookstore Devoted to a Southern Author
Hidden away in Pirates Alley, just steps off Jackson Square, Faulkner House Books is no secret to the waves of bibliophiles that ebb and flow through its cramped aisles. The pale green walls are hung with photographs of Southern authors and their friends—in addition to Faulkner, we spied Hemingway and Walker Percy—and the  handsome library shelves are packed with a very select collection of desirable books, classic and new.  As a young man, William Faulkner rented rooms in this house when penning his first novel, Soldier's Pay; and there is a glass-fronted case in an alcove filled with first editions of all his novels.  In the open stacks, we greedily pounced on a good reading copy of Walker Percy’s 1960 New Orleans novel, The Moviegoer.  We were also thrilled to discover Louisiana Cookery, written in 1954 by Mary Land who, as Owen Brennan says in the introduction, “makes such a case for a Creole way of life that ... she could convince the most die-hard Yankee that he’d been missing something until now.”  If only the tiny store were big enough for an easy chair or two, we could have spent the rest of the day unearthing more treasures.  Faulkner House, 624 Pirate’s Alley, New Orleans.  Telephone:  50-/524-2940.

Leopold Senghor
Left earth.  On his way to heaven, we are sure.  Poet, philosopher, diplomat, first and longtime president of Senegal.  It is extraordinary how many interesting political leaders are poets as well.  In 1984 he became the first black member of the French Academy.  See the New York Times, December 21, 2001, p. A25.  Senghor's books include:

The Collected Poetry
Euvre Poetique
Selected Poems of Leopold Sedar Senghor

Best Way to Introduce Haiku to a Child
One of the most charming gifts under our Christmas tree this year was Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! , a children’s book about the life and poems of Kobayashi Yataro, known in Japan as the poet Issa (1763-1827).  This delightful volume intersperses 33 of Issa’s haiku with a simple retelling of the major events of his life.  Kazuko Stone, a New York illustrator born in Japan, read more than 2,500 of Issa’s poems and visited his farmhouse before embarking on this project with author Matthew Golub.  Her illustrations are often sweetly humorous, as a dragon roof tile snaps at a crescent moon, or a family of monkeys relax in a steaming hot spring.  Some drawings—a crimson peony, a bejeweled dragonfly—are exquisitely detailed.  The book is published in English, but each poem is also rendered in flowing cursive calligraphy down the side of the page.  For a child, we can think of no more appealing introduction to haiku than this gentle book.  See:  Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs!, by Matthew Golub, Kazuko G. Stone, and Keiko Smith (New York:  Lee and Low Books, 1998.)

Andrew Delbanco, now writing a book entitled Melville’s World, in The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 2001, pp. l3-14, portrays for us what it took to make Moby Dick happen. Melville had dozens of writing projects on his mind, but Ahab slowly pushed all others aside. Melville became as possessed by Captain Ahab, as Ahab was by Moby Dick, the white whale. Herman was driven to elbow everything out of the way, especially his family, to get Ahab and the whale down on paper.

The book, incidentally, was a commercial failure, and Melville never recovered real popularity during his lifetime. At a certain point, the Melvilles turn out ambrosia and nector too rich for the palates of their countrymen.  To their annoyance, such pests of quality often are at odds with the populace whose acclaim they think they are seeking. In truth, they really want to be immortals. They are tiresome perfectionists often bound to die broke, bequeathing a fortune to all.

Work Is Highly Overrated
It’s summer in America now, time to read books, put one’s toe in the water, escape mortal pursuits.  Certainly Ava had this right: “I don’t understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamn duty.  Doing nothing feels like floating on warm water to me.  Delightful, perfect.” 

Spark, who churned out 22 novels and was more of a drone, had intimations that the good life did not consist of relentless production.  In our favorite passage from Curriculum Vitae, she talks of her first real job: 

Soon after this I got a job at 106 Princes Street in the west end, in the office of the elderly owner of an exclusive women’s department store, William Small & Sons….  My sweet employer was William Small himself.  His office was really an enormous drawing-room with a grand piano, a luxurious carpet and lots of flowers….  His son, Gordon, a tall, handsome and agreeable man of thirty who now ran the business, would occasionally come in, play the piano for a while, and go out again. 

Spark and her career were, however, inseparable. 

As we said in “UnCanny Tom Canning,” Spark, at her best, knew that we may busy ourselves with trivia, but the truths of  life and death will not be denied.  What we take to be her finest novel, Memento Mori, is an ancient phrase instructing us to “remember you are a mortal.”  This sentiment, when deeply felt, can make mortals into leaders.

Living Treasures
Borrowing from Japanese tradition, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii has taken to anointing locals who’ve made a mark in science and culture ‘Living Treasures.’  While our other states manage to honor a poet or two, Hawaii has found a way to salute an array of figures distinguished by breadth and wisdom. 

In some cases, it goes a bit overboard, celebrating people whose time has not come.  Surely this is the case with the rather young author Maxine Hong Kingston, who has written so well of Chinese-Americans in The Woman Warrior and China Men.  Like many newcomers, she never really intended to stay in Hawaii, but stay she has, and now feels part of it.  As a recent ‘Living Treasure,’ she has fused with its tolerant spirit and acknowledges that it has special traditions that are like no other: 

“Hawaii has all kinds of traditions and ceremonies that are not immediately apparent,” Mrs. Kingston says.  “I didn’t know about this one until I was made a part of it.  This tradition comes from ancient China via modern Japan.  In the same way that we designate paintings and monuments and mountains as treasures, they designate certain people as Living Treasures.” 

Magnificent Obsession
James Belknap of Raleigh, who teaches at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, probably has the best obsession of anyone in the Triangle.  He’s got the “list disease” and put it to good use both in his doctoral thesis and now in a book entitled The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing.  None other than Yale professor Harold Bloom is fascinated by Belknap and his mania.  (Read about Bloom in “Bloom—In Praise of Divorce.”)  The book is mostly about “literary lists found in the 19th century” works of notables such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.  To learn what he has wrought in his book, we recommend a review of his thesis in The Chronicle of Higher Education (, September 28, 2001).  Lists are everywhere in literature, he notes, and the best ones are conceived in a way that furthers the viewpoint or theme of the works in which they are found.  Belknap refers to an earlier work, Francis Spufford’s Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Literary Lists (1989), as one source of inspiration.  

Belknap and his wife Nadia, a French instructor, are quite the catch for St. Mary’s.  He got his B.A. from Michigan, and then  his M.A., M. Phil, and Ph.D. from Yale, which also published his book   Both Duke and UNC, where the English departments need some recharging, would do well to make him an occasional lecturer.  We wonder if, in another life, Belknap was Martin Luther who pinned his list of theses on a door in Germany and set off one of the storms of the Protestant Reformation.

Best Escapist Reading for Troubled Times
What to read is a genuine dilemma.  Books which absorbed us a month ago now seem irrelevant.  Recently, though, we returned to an old favorite by Angela Thirkell and found it pitch perfect.  Northbridge Rectory, set in Trollope’s imaginary Barsetshire, chronicles English country life of a bygone era with a hilarious blend of wit and compassion.  But this tale was published in 1942, when a maiden lady might carry a gas mask to a dinner party and a literary reading might be interrupted by the drone of a German warplane.  And that is what makes the book relevant to our own times.

In a stream of delightful stories written during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Thirkell, who was a cousin of Rudyard Kipling and granddaughter of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, captured every amusing nuance of rapidly changing English village life.  What makes her inconsequential characters heroic is the cheerful and determined way they soldier on in times of vast uncertainty.  In Northbridge Rectory,there is the penurious and curmudgeonly Miss Pemberton, fiercely nurturing the literary career of her gentleman lodger, Mr. Downing -- yet acknowledging that if England were to fall to Germany, there would not be much demand for his book on 12th-century Provencal lyrics.  Father Fewling, or “Tubby,” a naval man turned cleric, builds a cozy air-raid warden shelter complete with ship-shape bunks, a Union Jack, and “one of those very small bottles of rum just in case.”  And there is Mrs. Villars, the rector’s wife and most fortunate of women -- with sons assigned to desk jobs and money of her own for a cook and maids to clean the handsome rectory -- feeling guilty because she “so often woke up happy, so often had sudden absurd causeless attacks of happiness during the day.”  Faced with our own uncertainties, this tale of Barsetshire follies is just what the doctor ordered.

Other Thirkell novels in this series include Love at All Ages, Close Quarters, Peace Breaks Out, Never Too Late, Growing Up, County Chronicle, The Demon in the House, and Enter Sir RobertFor a complete listing, click here.

We first learned about vacilando from John Steinbeck in his Travels with Charley.  We are so rapturous about the term that we have even come up with our own spelling: “vacillando.”  Roughly it means that you set out on a journey with a destination in mind but the whole point is never to get there.  Your goal is to have a great trip—with lots of interests and stopovers along the way—and the end of the road is almost something to be feared, rather than something to be achieved.  For more on vacilando, see   

Muriel Spark
On April 13, 2006 the British novelist Muriel Spark, a convert to Catholicism like a whole clutch of British intellectuals, passed away.  One of her most famous works was Memento Mori, which deals with the intrigues and deceptions that were buried in the lives of aging Brits, but, in the end, shows that death will not be denied.  Memento Mori, “remember you are mortal,” has been an enduring theme in literature.  Her last years were spent in Italy, nearer to the Holy See.  Tom Canning has his own “Memento” version: “With that far country looming every nearer / The earth-bound seems shallow, not important / The transcendental you see much clearer.”

The Well Adjusted Poet
A fine review of the poet Richard Wilbur called “The Well-Adjusted Poet (New York Times Book Review, May 29, 2005, p. 13), suggests that poetry may be the life-giving medium for those who will hang around a while.  “While his contemporaries donned leather jackets or publicly fell to pieces, Richard Wilbur maintained his reticence.  …  Wilbur is living, white, male and, from all appearances, neither despondent nor mad.  …  These poems form an argument, about how one goal of a well-lived life might be composure, rather than the mad flowering of a personal signature.”  His Collected Poems, 1943-2004, makes an excellent Memorial Day Gift for some friend.  Ironically, says Stephen Metcalf, the reviewer, it was near the heat of fire as an infantryman—Wilbur having touched down at Anzio, Cassino, and the Siegfried Line in World War II—where the poet seriously took up his poetry of composure.

Kunitz Has Got It Right
For us, Stanley Kunitz, the poet who will cross over the century mark on July 29, has worked his way from the periphery right into the center of our field of vision.  For years we thought of him as one of those poets celebrated by the tribe of neoliteraries surrounding the New York Review of Books, an incestuous culture that doesn’t quite have anything to do with America, peopled by complexly neurotic sorts who winter in Manhattan and summer in the precincts of Wellfleet.  But as some of the critics have said, he has gotten better with age, having weathered in his lifetime a few wars, and moved his verse from clever intellectual turns to a more “confessional,” emotional tone. Now, you will find in his poetry an injunction that says, “Life must go on, so, by all means, live.” 

Perhaps 50 years ago in New York we visited a relatively high-ranking woman executive in a Fortune 100 company and had occasion to ask her, “Cybil [our made up name for her] you have really gotten to the top of the heap here.  How did you do it?”  “Well, hell, I just outlasted the bastards.”  Women had to be awfully tough in her day to get to be number one. 

Stanley Kunitz, as well, has outlasted the bastards.  The professionally depressed and psychotic poets from McLean and Rockland we idolized at the end of the last century are in their graves, but he’s still here to tell the tale.  He asks for no sympathy in old age, because he knows it will do him no good.  “If I could cry, I'd cry, / but I'm too old to be / anybody’s child.”   

And he’s done it rather nicely.  His children look in on him.  He divides his time between Greenwich Village and Provincetown, aided by a 24-hour nurse and literary assistant  Genine Lentine, a poet in her own right, who obviously provides the right counterpoint.  (See  They’re out with a book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, invoking the 2,000 square foot terraced garden facing the Bay in Massachusetts and the inspiration the garden has provided to his verse.  Kunitz, we understand, was much taken with the poems of Robert Herrick, who also instructed us to make the most of this life with metaphors taken from the garden: 

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
   Old time is still a-flying;
And the same flower that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.  

Writers Are a Troubled Lot
A bevy of writers know themselves to be troubled and understand the role of expression in relieving theirs cares.  Kurt Vonnegut says, “Writers can treat their mental illnesses every day.”  Art Buchwald and William Styron have talked very openly about their considerable periods of depression, humorously encapsulating the relationship between creativity and mental sloughs.  Buchwald says he thought about committing suicide, but was afraid the New York Times would have no room for his obituary.  He was sure General DeGaulle would die the same day and crowd him out of the funereal columns.  (See   

Laughs aside, this is no small matter, given the epidemic rates of depression in developed societies.  Styron, incidentally, turned his depression to profit, laying out his turmoil in Darkness Visible (see also  There are ample enough studies around about the health benefits of writing, not only for abolishing one’s ghosts but also for capturing one’s Eden, going beyond pain perhaps even to pleasure (  The drug companies are, of course, churning out miracle pills that don’t work.  Most likely, the afflicted will have to use creativity to blast themselves out of their hellholes. 

Prayers for Peace
Probably any prayer that gives you comfort and that takes you away from the human condition is worthy of consideration.  Why not pray for peace?  You do not have to be an ideologue to want peace on earth.  We have previously recommended Prayers for Peace, a wonderful little volume that looks like a missal, published by B. Martin Pedersen’s Graphis Press (see “Best Gift for All Seasons”).  Today we were struck by the “Shinto Prayer for Peace”: 

Although the people living across the ocean
Surrounding us, I believe, are all our brothers and sisters,
Why are there constant troubles in the world?
Why do winds and waves rise in the oceans surrounding us?
I only earnestly wish that the wind will
Soon puff away all the clouds which are
Hanging over the tops of the mountains. 

Best Heroic Books for Boys
We recently observed two middle school boys avidly poring over a table of used books at a library sale.  "There's one!" they exclaimed, pouncing on a worn paperback with sword-wielding rabbits on the cover.  It was The Long Patrol, one of fourteen books in the very popular series about Redwall Abbey and the lovable animals that live there.

At first glance, a series about a medieval abbey inhabited by talking mice, moles, squirrels and badgers wouldn't seem like a sure thing.  But in the world conjured up by author Brian Jacques, these small, mostly gentle forest creatures must do battle with the forces of evil—in the form of sniveling weasels, villainous foxes (Marlfox,1998) and cruel wildcats (Lord Brocktree, 2000).  The great clashing battles that ensue are filled with the sort of old-fashioned daring-do and feats of valor that most boys (and girls) love.  But underneath, these stories are also meditations on the virtues of goodness and kindness, loyalty to one's friends, and most especially, courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Jacques, a former milkman and stand-up comedian, began spinning tales of the kingdom of Mossflower for children at The Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool.  He received a modest $4,000 for his first novel, Redwall (1986), which was written on 800 sheets of recycled paper kept in a grocery bag; today the fourteen books in the series have over 3.5 million copies in print, and the official website,, receives 3.9 million hits annually from visitors in 126 countries.  It has spawned an animated TV series carried by about 200 PBS stations in the U.S. ( Two more books are due out this fall: The Taggerung and A Redwall Winter's Tale.

One twelve-year old we know explains the series' appeal:  "I like reading about the feasts and the adventures that lead to fights, like the one between the hares and the sea rats." Fights, yes. But feasts?  How about "thick porridge flavored with cut fruit and honey ... hot cheese flans and mugs of rosehip 'n' apple cider"?   Or "watershrimp an' 'otroot soup, full 'o dried watershrimps, bulrush tips, ransoms, watercress and special spices."  Why, it's mouthwatering enough to tempt even the most dedicated non-vegetable eater.

Creative Partnership
We can’t wait to dip into John Bayley’s new book, Widower’s House, which takes up his life after the death of his wife, Iris Murdoch, the awesomely talented, mind-providing English novelist. Previously we had hailed here his Elegy for Iris, an account of his marriage to and deep bonds with his wife (see #2 below). He has, in the meanwhile, followed up with Iris and Her Friends, which we will also have to read. His new book deals with his ongoing grief and, finally, his passage into a new life.

Best Excuse for Bibliomania
We've just run across an intriguing mention of Jahiz, a ninth century Arabic man of letters and bibliomaniac.  So ardent was his passion for books that he bribed the booksellers of Basra for the privilege of spending the night in their shops, reading each volume from cover to cover.  His seven-part masterpiece, Kitab al-Hayawan, was written to demonstrate the "usefulness of every created thing," a self-imposed mandate which permitted him to extol the virtues of dogs and the charms of singing girls, as well as the ever-ready friendship provided by books.

"I know no companion more prompt to hand, more rewarding, more helpful or less burdensome, and no tree that lives longer, bears more abundantly or yields more delicious fruit that is handier, easier to pick or more perfectly ripened at all times of the year, than a book," wrote Jahiz.  You can read these and other delightful excuses for bibliomania  in Night and Horses and the Desert:  An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, edited by Robert Irwin (Woodstock and New York:  The Overlook Press, 2000).  Like other addictions, it seems that bibliomania can kill:  Jahiz died when a stack of books fell upon him.

Paradise Lost (Part II):  Cuban Elegance
Another view of paradise lost may be found in Michael Connor’s new book, Cuban Elegance, which depicts the luxurious palaces and townhouses built by Cuba’s wealthy elite during four centuries of colonial rule.  Leafing through its pages, we were reminded of the vanished life of privilege enjoyed by a friend whose father once headed the island’s power and light company.  Her stories, of a pet monkey who dined at the family table and the butler who greeted shipwreck survivors with coffee poured from a silver urn, were always enthralling.  All this came to an end after the revolution.  The family, who was on a shooting trip in Spain, eventually dispersed to friendlier climes.  But one elderly aunt stayed in Cuba in a house by the sea.  She spent the rest of her days in bed, applying false eyelashes and reading movie magazines smuggled in care packages from the U.S.

The images that unfold within Cuban Elegance are astonishing.  The opulent rooms in the Palacio de la Condesa de Revilla de Camargo—imagine elaborately inlaid marble floors, ornately carved and gilded wood paneling, and a collection of 18th-century French furniture—could easily be found in a small European palace.  The dining room in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is lit by two magnificent crystal chandeliers and has an 18th-century Dutch tapestry on the wall.  On every page there is exquisite carved and gilded furniture, some imported from Europe, much of it indigenous.  But our favorite houses remind us that we are, after all, on a Caribbean island.  One lovely blue and white dining room features gaily patterned stained glass fanlights above louvered doors that open to a patio; in other homes we glimpse tiled floors and walls, lush plantings and windows that open to the sea.

Many of the beautiful homes photographed for this book are not identified, and the mystery to the casual reader is that they have survived decades of communist rule, apparently in private hands.  There is very little of the peeling plaster and cast-off furnishings that we might expect to see.  This is a tale that Mr. Connors has chosen, perhaps wisely, not to tell.  Well-versed in the architecture and furnishings of the Caribbean, he writes as knowledgably about 16th-century Plateresque colonial architecture (the name derived from plateria, or delicate filigreed silverwork) as about 19th-century muebles de medallon, the often riotously carved mahogany and cane furniture made by local craftsmen.  Mr. Connors has already produced two lines of West Indies-style furniture for Baker; can a Cuban line be far behind?

Cuban Elegance, Michael Connors (author) and Bruce Buck (photographer), published by Harry N. Abrams, 2004.

Maine's Finest Garden Retreat
The great landscape designer Beatrix Farrand made her last retreat in Mount Desert, Maine.  When she could not find an institution to turn her previous home at Reef Point into a school of horticulture, she dismantled it and moved six miles to Garland Farm, spending her remaining days with her gardeners (the Garlands) and her maid.  In her lifetime she had designed some 200 gardens to include the terraces at Dumbarton Oaks, the rose gazebo at New York’s Botanical Garden, and the Princeton University campus. 

Many of the plants at Reef Point were taken by Charles Savage for the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor. UC Berkeley got her library, but her favorite plants went to Garland.  The Beatrix Farrand Society has been formed to preserve and enhance this, her last garden.  See  Also see The New York Times, November 27, 2003, pp. D1 and D8, in which Anne Raver does a stunning review of Farrand’s accomplishment and of this garden.  To see the range of her work, look at Diane Balmori’s Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes: Her Gardens and Campuses.

Best Asian Shopping in Santa Fe:  Four Winds Antiques and Shibui
In curious ways, Santa Fe reflects the collective unconscious of a certain cut of the American population.  This old Spanish city has become in, recent years, a  cultural crossroads between east and west.  Sushi bars, zen gardens and yoga studios coexist, quite happily, with indigenous chile-spiked cuisine, brambly chamisa, and historic Catholic churches. The city is becoming an exemplar of the fusion of old and new, between its Spanish and native American heritage, and new age yearnings.  The fusion is not always seamless, but it is happening.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design world.  Although “Southwestern style” still rules, vendors of Asian-inspired furnishings are mushrooming.  Canyon Road, long the city’s art mecca, has its own Tibetan shop with silver ceremonial cups and carvings of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god.  Stone Forest sells Japanese granite fountains and lanterns, while Tropic of Capricorn, specializing in desert-happy plants, also hosts seminars on zen gardening   Asian furniture—say, a sculptural hand hewn table from the Philippines, or an antique stepped tansu chest—fits perfectly into the mellow adobe architecture that so characterizes the city.

Perhaps the most enthralling of these shops is Four Winds Antiques, which displays handmade furniture and objects from all over Southeast Asia.  Intrepid traveler Robbie Williams ventures into the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippines with an eye to bringing back exotic colonial-era objects and furniture, as well as tribal arts from China and Africa.  Her Canyon Road gallery, in an historic adobe house, is filled with goods that would fit easily into almost any decorative scheme.  We were particularly taken by a serene, late 17th-century Burmese Buddha, of gold leaf and red brown lacquer on wood, seated in the lotus position.  An elegant Chinese elmwood stool, circa 1860, with gracefully splayed feet would be lovely in a minimalist loft and could lighten up a traditional drawing room.  Many of Williams’ smaller objects are unique: we lusted after a carved tortoise shell comb from the Philippines and an antique Indonesian document box emblazoned with the owner’s name.  Not to be missed are stunning handwoven textiles from Northern Thailand, including a bronze silk throw with intricate geometric designs in red, black and green.

Four Winds has become a magnet for American designers, and much of Williams’ stock winds up with collectors on the East and West coasts.  Contact:  Four Winds Antiques, 901 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.  Telephone: 505-982-1494.  Website:

Not  far from the downtown plaza, one finds Shibui, a repository of magnificent Japanese antiques, many of museum quality.  Founded by Dane Owen, who began buying and selling Eastern antiques when he was studying at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, this 5,200 square foot gallery is a collector’s dream.  Tansu chests are a specialty and we particularly admired a double-sided Kaidan step chest from the late Edo or early Meijii era.  Made of three Japanese woods—hinoki (cypress), keyaki (elm) and sugi (cedar)—its lineage can be traced to the farmhouse in the Niagata region where it was originally made.  Textile enthusiasts will find many tempting items here, such as an indigo-dyed fireman’s coat, made of wool and silk, with a rabbit crest on the back, and many lovely ceremonial kimonos, most from the Edo period.  On a smaller scale, Shibui has an appealing collection of handtinted Meijii-era photographs of Japanese scenes which would make a wonderful pictorial group on a large empty wall.

Owner Dane Owen and David Jackson have written a scholarly, beautifully illustrated book, Japanese Cabinetry: The Art and Craft of Tansu, which can be purchased at the gallery.  Contact:  Shibui, 215 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501. Telephone: 505-986-1117.  Website:

Best Triad (and Triangle) Hotel
The O. Henry Hotel is probably the best hotel from the Coastal Plain to the Piedmont of North Carolina.  It's still a secret, incidentally; most denizens of Greensboro and Winston Salem simply don't know about it.   It is the reincarnation of an earlier version torn down in 1979.  It's named for O. Henry, a.k.a. William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), the storyteller who started life here but then made his way to Texas, Ohio, and other parts, finally dying in penury in New York Citydespite his prolific writing career.  Like O. Henry, the hotel is a gem waiting to be rediscovered by history.  O. Henry Hotel.  624 Green Valley Rd., Greensboro, North Carolina 27429.  1-336-854-2000.

We found an O. Henry volume by our bedside and would recommend the hotel make the writer the centerpiece of more visible promotion.  Here are some O. Henry books available:

Visiting The Spider's House
Built in 1879 by the Grand Vizir to Sultan Moulay Hassan I, the famed Palais Jamais has been favored by discerning travelers since it became a hotel in the 1930s.  The Moorish-style palace and its lovely Andalusian gardens were the setting for Paul Bowles' novel, The Spider's House, which chronicled the fall of the French Protectorate in Fez in the 1950s.  (See Best of Class, entry #147 for more on Palais Jamais.)

Best Intimate Creative Writing Program
This is not a big program, but it has a star-studded cast of poets, novelists, and playwrights as faculty, and its students win endless accolades, including the National Book Award, Pulitzers, etc.  Director Leslie Epstein has led the program for more than twenty years; his eight books of fiction include the well-known King of the Jews.  Poet Robert Pinsky was U.S. Poet Laureate from l997-2000, poetry editor for Slate, and a regular on PBS.  Given the small number of faculty and students, it is something of an intimate salon.  See

Christopher Fry
Christopher Fry was an elegant poet/playwright but in an age where Thespians have been given over to prose.  He had a long life, appropriate for someone of a comic sensibility.  In declining England, it was other angry young, bleak playwrights who took over the stage and pushed him out of the limelight halfway through his career.  His verse dramas only gave him a brief moment of fame, but we can see poesy plays coming back, for the best days of Greek drama were the early ones where rhythmic choruses ruled the roost.  About poetry Fry said, “Poetry has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time.”  And he knew what the moon was for: “The moon is nothing but a circumambulating aphrodisiac divinely subsidized to provoke the world into a rising birth-rate.”  We have always been taken by the title of his The Lady's Not for Burning, a play that much later came to be linked in jest to Margaret Thatcher.  We would have given our eyeteeth to see the John Gielgud West End production, which also featured a young Richard Burton and Claire Bloom and who were reputed to be electric together.  We’re sure any one of the players could have said: “I shall be loath to forego one day of you.”  Read about its opening in 1948, its move over to the Globe in the West End in 1949, and its vast success at the Brooks Atkinson in New York.  Everything Fry did was thick with language, and you can hear the words even if you are merely reading him.  See,12830,965205,00.html.  He died June 30 in Chichester.  (8/17/05)

Giving Bulgakov's Devil His Due
To paraphrase Mark Twain in Pudd'nhead Wilson, a classic is a book everyone talks about but no one reads.  While we get the feeling that Mikhail Bulgakov may have learned a thing or two from Mr. Clemens, we must twist the saying a bit to fit Bulgakov's stunning book, The Master and Margarita: some classics no one talks about and no one reads.  Bulgakov's novel, almost unilaterally declared a masterpiece continuously since its publication in Moscow in 1966 (it was written in the late 30s, and when you read it you'll see why it didn't see the light of the Soviet day for decades), is a literary sleeping giant. Those who have read it never forget the experience; those who haven't read it have in store an experience on par with their first encounters with Beethoven's Ninth, Melville's Moby-Dick ... you get the picture.  We'd summarize the plot for you, but, put simply, we would do injustice to Bulgakov's Pontius Pilate, his Satan, his Master, and his Margarita. You just have to read this one for yourself.

From Babe to Poesy
Rachel DeWoskin is a major poetic talent, according to Robert Pinsky, one-time Poet Laureate of the United States, who had her under his wing at Boston University after her return from China.  In China she had starred in a radio soap called “Foreign Babes in Bejing,” the title also of a book she has authored about her post-college experience in China.  Her poetry as well feasts on the China adventure: 

Outside McDonald’s downtown
in Beijing, I board a bus bound
for mountains with Xiao Dai
who carries equipment, asks why
I have to be so headstrong.
I say nothing. We belong
to a climbing club. Sheer rocks 

For more on her poetry, see Ploughshares at
prmarticleID=7854.  (7/20/05)

Barr None
Even investment bankers for public utilities such as John W. Barr can be poets-in-hiding.  His fifth book of poetry is called Grace: An Epic Poem (Story Line Press).  (See The New York Times, December 19, 1999, Business Section)

From the Babes of Divorced Parents
See Michael Holroyd's Basil Street Blues.  He mouths Hugh Kingsmill's aphorism: "Friends are God's apology for families."

Nicaragua’s Best Poet
And probably Latin America’s.  Possibly the most important modernist poet in the Spanish-speaking world.  Ruben Dario (1867-1916), born in Metapa, spent his creative life in Santiago, Chile, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Paris.   Harvard recently uncovered a couple of his poems, which were gathering dust, unheralded, on the shelves of the Widener Library.  (See “Harvard Finds Two Poems, and a Latin Romance Reignites,”  New York Times, September 19, 2000, p. 2.  He is celebrated by both the greats and the critics.  See, for instance, a 1933 dialogue between Pablo Neruda and Garcia Lorca at   Some works are available such as Azul, Cuentos Completos, and Poemas Escogidos, with more due to be published.  On the website, there are six dramatic poems including “To Roosevelt.”

Best Love Story of 1999
Iris Murdoch, one of the band of fine women English novelists that academic England nurtured after the war, died February 8, 1999.  Her husband's love affair with her and their time together are beautifully remembered in Elegy for Iris (John Bayley, Picador, 1999).  One is not quite certain how well Bayley understood what Murdoch was about.  In some respects, they are strangers to each other and to the planet.  But love they did.  With their mutual passion for their water and for swimming, they cavorted together as water babies, well into old age, even in the buff.   Bayley, about whom we are just learning, has written some fiction (The Red Hat), a host of criticism, and has also edited a number of classic novels by Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Henry James (The Wings of the Dove), and Anthony Trollope (Can You Forgive Her?), among others. 

Best Irish Mystery Read
Bartholomew Gill, who spends a goodly amount of time in America, knows the old sod very well.  And that's the charm of his mysteries.  You can learn about Irish politics and fishing by reading him.  And he will also lead you through literary Dublin.  His Inspector McGarr is one of the few mystery protagonists you might actually be willing to hoist a pint with.  Some of Gill's winners are:



In Praise of Shadows, Juni'ichiro Tanizaki (1-14-15)

I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation, Francis Picabia (4-11-12)

Roselyne De Ayala, Jean-Pierre Gueno - Illustrated Letters: Artists and Writers Correspond (11-23-11)

Richard Haw - Art of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Visual History (11-09-11)

Esther McCoy – Five California Architects (10-12-11)

Tricks of the Trade
We have always thought that at least half the great art in history has been produced by creatives with terribly bad eyes, the distortions in their vision producing the effects we so cherish.  My eye doctor, of course, says this is all balderdash.  However, in like manner, we find slightly loony people becoming psychiatrists and psychologists, struggling to right their brains.  And we know, of course, that all time management people, to a man and woman, are horribly disorganized and are terrible wastes of time.  By this definition, talent is a person recovering from some malady or another.

Be that as it may, we do learn in David Hockney's Secret Knowledge that much art has been produced by optical devices.  The optical lens was used in much 15th-century art; it permitted artists to reflect images onto flat surfaces and, seemingly, led to increasing realism in paintings.  At any rate, optics and prevailing light have a huge amount to do with the look of paintings.

The Shape of Content
Years ago, the charming American artist Ben Shahn authored a little gem called The Shape of Content.  A friend from Victoria tells me that the Japanese converted this title so perfectly and so imperfectly to "The Outside of the Inside."  Of course, that book was written when there was still content to be shaped.



A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello, Peter J. Hatch

Founding Gardeners, Andrea Wulf

Polly Adler – A House Is Not a Home – 1953 (02-24-10)

Caribbean Houses – Michael Connors – 2009  (11-25-09)

Novella Carpenter -- Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – 2009 (09-30-09)

Maine's Finest Garden Retreat
The great landscape designer Beatrix Farrand made her last retreat in Mount Desert, Maine.  When she could not find an institution to turn her previous home at Reef Point into a school of horticulture, she dismantled it and moved six miles to Garland Farm, spending her remaining days with her gardeners (the Garlands) and her maid.  In her lifetime she had designed some 200 gardens to include the terraces at Dumbarton Oaks, the rose gazebo at New York’s Botanical Garden, and the Princeton University campus. 

Many of the plants at Reef Point were taken by Charles Savage for the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor. UC Berkeley got her library, but her favorite plants went to Garland.  The Beatrix Farrand Society has been formed to preserve and enhance this, her last garden.  See  Also see The New York Times, November 27, 2003, pp. D1 and D8, in which Anne Raver does a stunning review of Farrand’s accomplishment and of this garden.  To see the range of her work, look at Diane Balmori’s Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes: Her Gardens and Campuses.

Tulip World's Secret Weapon
In 1999 some exiles from Andersen Consulting in Amsterdam put together an online tulip company which has done enough clever things since to make a dent in the market.  One of the ways it has made headway in America, which really takes half of Holland’s exports, is to form partnerships with charity organizations (to include an anti-drug group and a Parkinson organization) whereby it moves some product and, importantly, gains names to add to its circulation base.  But the key magic ingredient in our eyes is that they captured as an advisor a top tulip expert, one Jacqueline van der Kloet, author of Magic with Bulbs.  Against Walmart and the like, TulipWorld can only prevail on quality, not price.  That’s where ven der Kloet’s eye and experience come into play.  See  Also look at Fast Company, May 2003, pp. 107-110.

Caribbean Furnishings Man
Better than a decade ago, when he was still affiliated with Lord & Taylor, we secured from Michael Connors the doors to the theater out of a Spanish castle and a large tile assemblage from Portugal that recalls the trading culture and great navigators that once graced that nation.  To wit, he had and has an eye for the unusual piece that adds a little romance to the hygienic offerings decorators usually put in houses these days.  So he is quite a bit more than “the nation’s foremost dealer in West Indian antiques of the Colonial era,”  though he has certainly made this look part of our vernacular now.  He helped design a line of West Indies reproductions for Baker Furniture.  And he has a book out called Caribbean Elegance, where he speaks of this style and its use in historic homes.  Much of this is recounted in “A Breeze Blows through the Drawing Room,” an article about him and the look in the New York Times, March 27, 2003, pp. D1 and D6.  We very much like the accidental way he got started in the West Indies.  On a ship that stopped at St. Croix “I fell in love with a gal there . . . and the ship left without me.” 

Best Way to Connect the Indoors to the Outdoors
Maybe it's the President's admission that global warming is here (and that there's nothing we can do about it), or maybe it's just the soaring mercury, but lately we've been intrigued with the notion of easy-flow houses that  are open to the outdoors.  Homes where the barriers between inside and out are nearly invisible, where one can drift from a  living room with plush, linen slip-covered sofas, say, through French doors to an enclosed patio with trickling water and from thence to a flower-filled garden.  

New Asian Style:  Contemporary Tropical Living in Singapore, by Jane Doughty Marsden (Periplus Editions Ltd, Singapore: 2002), is a seductive guide to living in houses of endless summer.  The book resonates with ideas for floor-to-ceiling windows with enormous louvered shutters, shimmering tile pools that come to the edge of or even into the house, and open air bathrooms where bamboo is neatly planted next to a shower with teak decking.  Marsden, a former Vogue copy editor, writes intelligently about Singapore's tropical architecture, which ranges from stark, all-white, minimalist abodes to converted colonial shophouses arrayed in vibrant silks and adorned with wondrous collections of handicrafts and antiques.

Ample proof that such architecture isn't limited to the tropics can be found, incidentally, in a recent New York Times article by Raul A. Barraneche, "Metal Warm as Brandy," (May 16, 2002, D1, D10.).  Architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe designed a seemingly open air house for an investment executive and his family in Toronto, of all places.  Using a Canadian "palette" of "golden Douglas Fir ... and a steel facade that has weathered to ... a soft nubuck chocolate," the design duo created a very modern home with huge glass windows that wrap around a rectangular lily pond that is shrouded in vapor during the frigid winter and, in summer, is filled with blooming water hyacinths. When the weather is hot, the windows slide open, letting butterflies and lady bugs inside. In all seasons, the water casts rippling reflections on the interior ceilings and rain drips down a "large steel scupper" into the pond, making the residents intimately aware of the world outside.

Best Book about Man's Passion for Plants
Michael Pollan is a clever fellow.  Magazine editor, original thinker and passionate amateur garderner, he deals with big themes, world-changing ideas about man and nature.   In his first book, Second Nature:  A Gardener's Education (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991), he acknowledged the uneasy relationship Americans have with the wilderness, then offered a philosophy allowing for a more constructive give-and-take in the garden.   Now, in The Botany of Desire (New York: Random House, 2001), Pollan tackles evolution in the plant world, showing how four domesticated plants have survived and flourished over the centuries by evolving in ways that gratify mankind's deepest desires.  We've been seduced, he says, by apples that satisfy our craving for sweetness, by the tulip which offers beauty, by cannabis which provides  intoxication, and by the potato whichwell, that's a more complicated  story. 

The most original aspect of the book is that Pollan examines all this from the viewpoint of the plant.  He speculates, for instance, that man is hardwired to love flowers because a bloom can be the precursor to edible fruit.  Now that we no longer forage, certain flowers have evolved ever more beautiful forms to ensnare us.  Viewed from this perspective, the tulip's occasional "color breaks"virus-caused streaks and flames that drove stolid Dutch burgers to insane speculative frenzywere the simple Turkish flower's way of encouraging the almost obsessive development of spectacular new varieties, thus ensuring its entree into the world's gardens.

Pollan has an equally refreshing take on the apple and its chief American apostle, Johnny Appleseed:  Instead of the sanitized folk hero of legend, his research leads him to a wild, shadowy backwoodsman who had more in common with the pagan god Pan, "a satyr without sex" able to glide back and forth between wilderness and civilization, than with the saintly figure sold to millions of school children.  (One  reason settlers welcomed John Chapman into their homes was the prospect of being able to grow fruit to make hard cideran acceptable alcoholic beverage.)

But what of the humble potato?  In Pollan's view, the McDonalds of the world, fired by our appetite for an unending source of perfect French fries, have led  us down the road to ever more destructive and expensive pesticides and fertilizers in the vain attempt to produce limitless quantities of the Burbank Russet potato.  But the land is exhausted and even the deadliest poisons are losing the insect war.  Monsanto's NewLeaf potato, created in a petri dish with the Bacilllus thuringensis gene (a naturally occurring insecticide) would appear to answer man's desire for control through artificial selection.  In fact, it raises a whole slew of new concerns, ranging from who owns the "rights" to a naturally occurring substance to the spectre of new famines caused by diminishing genetic variety. Most alarming is the fact that the FDA has never ruled on whether the NewLeaf is fit for human consumption because it doesn't regard this potato as a food, but as a pesticide. Now that potato salad season is upon us, we may have to grow our own.

True Grit
"Our view ... is best expressed by the noted plantman, Sir Peter Smithers, 'I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself.'"  From Kim E. Tripp and J.C. Raulston, The Year in Trees: Superb Woody Plants for Four-Season Gardens, p. 12.  You have to read Raulston, incidentally, if you are gardening in North Carolina, which has its own special challenges, best surmounted by an indomitable attitude.

Best Full Spectrum Paint
Donald Kaufman, a color field painter whose works hang in The Museum of Modern Art, and his wife, Taffy Dahl, a ceramist, may be America's premier color consultants. Working with architects and designers such as Philip Johnson and Philippe Starck, they've created subtle, very sophisticated hues for museums, hotels and the homes of the rich and famous.  But for ordinary mortals, they have also formulated the Donald Kaufman Color Collection, a line of fifty full spectrum paints that have the same rich, luminosity as the colors they've created for, say, the Getty Museum or the Delano Hotel.  The secret is the use of transparent pigments which reflect rather than absorb light, as ordinary paints do.  Kaufman uses all the pigments in the color spectrum when blending his colors, often in minute amounts, compared with the three or four that most standard paint companies use.  Although he never uses black, many of his hues have a neutral undertone, which makes them extraordinarily easy to live with.

The beauty of Kaufman's paints is that often, one can't quite identify the color.  DKC-29, for instance, a mysterious watery blue, has turned a windowless hallway we know into a luminous passage that at times looks misty gray and, at others, like the soft blue of an early spring sky.  More pronounced colors, such as DKC-11, a spring green with a neutral edge, have a rich enveloping glow that is far from dull, yet avoid the nerve-jangling intensity of  hues form other paint manufacturers. Kaufman's color theory is expounded in his beautifully photographed books, Color: Natural Palettes for Painted Rooms and Color and Light: Luminous Atmospheres for Painted Rooms, and in Color Palettes by Suzanne Butterfield, a partner in the paint business.  Paints, which are mixed using a Pratt and Lambert base, are available only from Kaufman's paint company, The Color Factory, as are over-sized paint chips and small sample-size cans of paint.  Contact: The Color Factory, 114 West Palisade Avenue, Englewood NJ, 07631-2692.  Telephone:  201-568-2226.

Best Encyclopedia of Hardy Trees and Shrubs
Anyone who has tried to find the right tree for the right spot—and has been frustrated by the standard offerings and lack of knowledge in local garden centers—would do well to consult  Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs:  An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1997).  Here one will discover a wealth of possibilities for gardens in zones 3 through 6 and, by extension, zones 7 and 8.  Dr. Michael A. Dirr, renowned Professor of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, has compiled a stellar collection of 500 species of trees and shrubs, describing their growth habits and needs for soil, sun, water, and other necessities of life.  Dirr’s color photos, as clear as they are beautiful, show full grown frees as well as close-up details of bark, leaves and flowers.  Add to the mix his own pithy, highly knowledgeable comments, and you have a genuinely useful book that can open up new vistas in the landscape.

Old Southern Apples
Over 1600 varieties of antique apples are covered in Calhoun's monumental volume, Old Southern Apples (Blacksburg: McDonald & Woodward, 1995) a superb resource for any apple grower living below the Mason Dixon line.  Each entry not only describes the apple in great detail, but provides historical information about its origins, often citing old agricultural journals and nursery catalogues.  The illustrations are magnificent, particularly the watercolors commissioned by the USDA's Division of Pomology in the late 19th century.

Best Book on Moroccan Design
Yesterday's mail brought the new Dooney & Bourke catalogue.  Photographed in and around Marrakesh, it offers striking views of leather goods in the desert and in rooms featuring the intricately inlaid zellig tiles that are such a distinctive element of Moroccan design.  All of which serves to remind us that Morocco is currently enjoying  a  moment in the sun.

Moroccan Interiors (Taschen, Germany, 1995), by Lisa Lovat-Smith, a former Vogue editor who lives in Paris, is that rare anomaly: an intelligently written design book.  Lovat-Smith travelled all over the country, poking her nose into Berber tents and 18th-century palaces, cave dwellings and the mansions of the aristocracy.  She traces the development of different architectural styles, then embarks on an enthralling tour of  magnificent abodes, many restored by Europeans.  The dazzling color photographs capture the innate richness of Moroccan decor and the high level of craftmanship that is necessary to achieve it.  It's enough to make one dream of a vacation home in the medina.  Moroccan Interiors, by Lisa Lovat-Smith .

Clay Lancaster Lives!
Clay Lancaster passed away in December.  (See New York Times, February 9, 2001.)  He was influential in Brooklyn Heights' preservation, the restoration heart of America's most 19th-century city.  But he was an important commentator on other architectural worlds as well.  Some of his books include:

Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb
Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky
The Japanese Influence in America
Nantucket in the Nineteenth Century
The American Bungalow, 1880-1930

Lancaster is also remembered for a witty conversation about the gardens at Versailles at the time of Louis XVI.  Over a dinner, he and a lady friend spoke in the present tense, as though they were with Louis.  If, in his mind, Lancaster lived in the 18th century, surely he can't really have passed away in the 20th.  Maybe he's in Argentina.

Best Book on Domestic Improvement
It’s Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.  See also “Home Design’s Zen Master of Perfect Imperfection,” New York Times, November 25, 2000, p. Bl8.   Alexander lives in Berkeley, which is only fitting because it was home to America’s most significant domestic architect in the early 20th century--Bernard Maybeck, whose quaint houses just happened to be very charming and very livable.  Mr. Alexander’s house does not have a doorbell so you have to give him a shout to raise him.  You will also find his website ( hard to navigate--all part of the trappings of artfully designed eccentricity.  For sure he is an antidote to sterile architects, Home Depots, and new housing developments that lack any memory of yesterday.

Sources of Creativity
By far the best part of Akiko Busch's Geography of Home: Writings About Where We Live (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) is the chapter on the "home office," the topic she may know best.  The snippet here (pp. 85-86) deals in part with the dilemma of the home writer--how do you get charged up enough to get going? Busch's answer:

"Ackerman points out that Katherine Mansfield gardened and Dame Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin before they sat down to write.  And Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in a bureau; often, when searching for a word, the poet would open the drawer, finding that the pungent bouquet released a new reserve of creative energy.  It is said that George Sand went to her desk directly from lovemaking, while Colette found that picking the fleas off her cat was the appropriate prelude to work.  More orderly and contained, Stendhal read sections of French civic code each morning 'to acquire the correct tone.'"

The other parts of the book may have too much the smell of rote learning.

Adventures with Old Houses
North Carolina lacks the gracious plantation architecture that is a hallmark of its more prosperous neighbors to the north and south.  But just down the road from Montrose is a Federal-era house of the most appealing sort.  Commissioned in 1814 by a Scottish merchant, Ayr Mount was occupied by his descendents for the next 170 years, until noted preservationist and former Chairman of The Equitable, Richard Jenrette, rescued it from slow decline.  Now a museum, the handsomely restored, vaguely Palladian brick house invites the visitor to linger in its well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms.  Many feature fine architectural woodwork; all are filled with antiques, some original to the home and some from Mr. Jenerette’s own collection of Duncan Phyfe pieces.  The romantic grounds offer lovely vistas down to the Eno River and to the hills beyond; nature trails are open for hiking.  For more about Ayrmont, see Mr. Jenrette’s new book, Adventures with Old Houses (Wyrick and Company).  To visit, contact: Ayr Mount, 376 St. mary’s Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278.  Telephone: 919-732-6886.

Best Comedic English Gardening Book of the 1950s
There comes a moment in late summer when the desire to tend the garden wilts before clouds of hot steam issuing from the earth and airborne armies of ravenous mosquitoes.  The cure, for a day or two at least, is to abandon all pretense of horticulture and curl up on a sofa in the air conditioning-- preferably near a window where you can glimpse the white Seafoam roses, but not the weeds springing up about their base--with a glass of tropical iced tea and a book.  The book, if it is even about gardening, should be purely frivolous, not at all instructive, and certainly not guilt-producing.  It should, in short, be Merry Hall by Beverly Nichols.

Decades before Peter Mayle ever thought of renovating a house in Provence, Beverly Nichols, a prolific English writer, bought a horribly run-down Georgian manor house with a derelict garden and proceeded to resuscitate them both.  His adventures at Merry Hall are chronicled in this supremely light, frothy book.  Very much a post-World War II period piece, peopled with wonderful characters who probably no longer exist, even in rural England, it will teach you little about gardening--Nichols wasn't much of a horticulturist--except perhaps the fun of having acres of white lilies to drive your friends and enemies insane with jealousy.  But it will make you laugh at the antics of Miss Emily and Our Rose, neighborhood viragos who try every angle to trap Nichols into sharing the bounty of his exquisitely maintained vegetable garden, when they are not at each other's throats to see who can best decorate the local church for a visit from "the Princesses."  And it will make you long for an Oldfield, who does all the actual work for Nichols, whose own principal contribution, at least in the early pages, is to burn down an offending holly hedge after drinking too much champagne.   See Merry Hall, by Beverly Nichols, originally published by Jonathan Cape, 1951; reissued by Timber Press, 1998.

Best Comeback Kid
No, we don't mean Clinton's comback in New Hampshire after da-Flowers episode, which was ludicrous. We are talking about Sir Terence Conran who, as much as anybody, and more than Martha, brought style into the lives of the middle classes in the United Kingdom and the United States.  This includes home furnishings, restaurants, and a host of other ventures.  Virtually belly up at one point, he has been a marvelous Phoenix, getting back on our screen when we visited his London restaurant Bibendum in its early days.  Conran is a revival or a Lazarus worth talking about.  His new Guastavino's, under the Queensboro Bridge in New York, is a giant, magnificent affair.   Read more about him at his extensive website or in his several books:



Best Medicinal Herb and Spice Reference Books
Dr. James A. Duke has spent his entire professional life in the world of plants-- first, as curator at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, then economic botanist at the US Department of Agriculture, now explorer of the Amazonian rain forest and teacher of botanical healing. Throughout, he has devoted himself to the study of plants as medicine.  The culmination of this lifelong passion are two worthy books so packed with scientific data that we were tempted at first to recommend them for professional use.  Indeed, dipping into the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs and the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices is like opening the door to a world where an alien language is spoken, a world of  alpha-terpineols, bornyl-acetates and the like (chemical factors which contribute to the antibacterial powers of certain herbs).

And yet there is much for the layman’s delectation.  In  his discussion of  the herb myrtle, Duke tells us that ancient Jews viewed the plant as a “symbol of divine generosity,” an emblem of peace and joy.  “Arabs say that myrtle is one of three plants taken from the garden of Eden, because of its fragrance.”  We learned that its oil is used in perfumes and that in Sardinia whole pigs are roasted over aromatic myrtle wood fires.  In other cultures, various parts of the plant are used to cure everything from boils and headache to asthma and uterine fibroid tumors.  Duke’s underlying thesis is that with a better understanding of the healing properties of herbs and spices, modern medicine could dispense with many drugs that have adverse side effects.  Medicinal Spices cites an alarming report in The Journal of the American Medical Association (May 1, 2002) that Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) are America’s biggest killer.  Priced like vintage wine, neither book is a casual purchase, but either could be a valuable addition to the home reference shelf. Contact:  CRC Press, 2000 N.W. Corporate Blvd., Boca Raton, Florida 33431. Telephone:  (800) 272-7737.  Fax:  800/374-3401.  Website:

Contact:  The Conservatory of the U.S. Botanic Garden, 245 First Street SW, Washington, DC 20024.  (The main entrance is on The National Mall on Maryland Avenue SW.)  Telephone:  (202) 225-8333.  Fax: (202) 225-1561.  Website:

Adverse Drug Reactions
He’s just out with two definitive books—Handbook of Medicinal Herbs and the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices—published by CRC Press in Boca Raton, Florida.  We will have a lot more to say about the spice book on Global Province since we are delving into spices in our Best of Class section.  In his acknowledgements, he provides a whopper of a reason to include medicinal plants in your bag of tricks:  “And to you, the reader, and your health, may the spices of life prolong and enhance the quality of your lives, saving you from what is believed to be America’s biggest killer, Adverse Drug Reactions (ADR’s), according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, May 1, 2002.”  And, oh, by the way, garlic is apparently the number one spice medicine, according to Duke.   

Best Website for Out-of-Print Books bills itself as "The World's Largest Network of Independent Booksellers," and, indeed, it may be.  Searches even for fairly obscure books have turned up dozens of copies offered by a host of dealers.  Through the website, we've obtained a mint first edition of Joe Eck's slim, hard-to-find volume, Elements of Garden Design.  While looking for a good reading copy of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, we discovered that a treatise he wrote on Bourbon, which we bought in the 1980s, has quintupled in value.  We're now trying to decide which of the thirty-six available copies of Bertram Thomas' 1932 travel classic, Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia, to add to our collection. Possibilities range from a  "fine" first American edition with "slight chipping to the upper edge" ($215) to a "clean" $15 copy with no dust jacket and "stains on the end papers."

Two more things we like about this website:  Most dealers meticulously describe the  condition of the volumes they have on offer, a must for collectors and a great help to anyone who buys old or rare books.   Best of all, the site gives one the option of purchasing directly from the bookseller, an excellent practice which has led us into more fascinating conversations than we could ever have with one-click providers.

For other on-line portals to independent booksellers, see entry 32 in Global Sites.

Yogi Berra's Slim Diet
Apparently, Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes has been re-issued with 700+ new entries.  According to the Times (Week-End Section, March 11, 2001, p. 7), Yogi Berra still comes out on top: "Having ordered a pizza, Berra was asked whether he would like it cut into four or eight pieces.  'Better make it four,' said Yogi.  'I don't think I can eat eight.'"

Best Atlas of the Ancient World
Published in October, Dr. Richard Talbert's The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World is the best thing going on the way things were way back when.  Or so says John Wilford of The New York Times, the author of a very fine book on map-making himself, The Mapmakers.  Dr. Talbert is at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is supporting the establishment of an Ancient World Mapping Center.  See "An Atlas Unveils the Intricacies of Ancient Worlds," The New York Times, December 12, 2000, p. D5.

Best Book on Charts
Edward R. Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale, is author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, still the modern classic on how to build a chart that says something  Often he argues for charts that are a bit too complex, but he is a wonderful advocate for clean, accurate graphics.  His other books include:

On Writing Clearly
It's short, too.  See William Zinsser, On Writing Well (HarperReference, 6th ed., 1998).  Journalist, educator, and general good fellow, he's a close friend.   So we're prejudiced.  But somebody must agree, since this remarkable little tome is frequently in reprinting.  He explains that one way to help lost souls write better is to have them explain in detail how something works.  We wonder if this would put an end to all the horrible documentation spewed forth by computerdom.



Rome<:iframe>">, Robert Hughes (05-23-13)

Mani, Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Man Who Planted Trees - Jim Robbins

Deborah Fallows. Dreaming in Chinese, Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language - 2010 (09-29-10)

Captain Joshua Slocum - Sailing Alone Around the World – 2008 [1900] (09-01-10)

William Dalyrmple - Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India – 2010 (07-14-10)

Jack Beckham Combs – The Cubans – 2010 (06-16-10)

Alex and Rebecca Norris Webb – Violet Isle – 2009 (06-16-10)

Carlos Eire – Waiting for Snow in Havana:  Confessions of a Cuban Boy – 2004 (06-16-10

Simon Winchester – The Man Who Loved China – 2009 (01-20-10)

David Sibley - Sibley’s Guide to Trees - 2009 (11-25-09)

William Least Heat-Moon – Blue Highways – 1982

William Least Heat-Moon – River-Horse – 2001

Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia – 2008 – Sharon White

Bees in America
Those who would hearken back to a time when man had a more collegial relationship with

nature might consult Tammy Horn's Bees In America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation which investigates the place of the bee in our culture from its earliest days.  It is not only that colonials and those who came later so depended on the bee both for their agriculture and for their larder.  But the bee and the hive became metaphors in our culture—emblems of how our society should be shaped and governed.  The bee was regarded so highly that its skep (straw hive) even appeared on the first continental currency.  “Americans continued to use the term bee to describe joyoys occasions for fellowship and work..." Might we not rekindle our relationship with the bee?

Parrot Pages
Mark Bittner’s website, which he has located on the home of Pelican Media, is as pretty a bird viewing as you are going to find.  He’s recorded his doings with a flock of wild parrots that hang about San Francisco, and provides a little history of parrots there.  This has all led to a book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.  As with all budding authors, all has been pushed aside while he does a countrywide book tour.  Like Verlang, this is one of those offbeat, wonderful websites that illuminates the best parts of San Francisco that you are likely to miss.  See  (5/4/05)

A Promoter’s Paradise
That New Mexico attracts so many visitors despite the neglect is testimony not only to the good weather but to the ceaseless flogging of an image of the place by promoters over the years.  Santa Fe, America’s second-oldest town, is today mostly a distant suburb of Texas and southern California.  Not unlike many other pleasure spots in the United States, it is a rather new creation in its present form as conjured up by real estate men and other trumpeters for railroads and the diverse interests that peopled the West.  In this vein, one should read about C.F. Lummis in American Character:  The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest.  A journalist out of  Ohio, he pumped Santa Fe and more before moving on to Otis’s Los Angeles Times and a very colorful life that included the creation of The Southwest Museum ( in Los Angeles.  Modern, museumed, romanticized Santa Fe, centered today on its agora, is the creation of Lummis and others like him who made it into a destination, instead of a stop on the trail, for Americans seeking something different.

Lightning Does Strike Twice
It happened to us twice in 2002, the two jolts within 25 feet of one another, all during the month of July.  That kindled an interest in lightning, which has not led to anything practical but we hope it does.  We would like to better learn how to protect limb and property.   We asked the chap whose company did the repairs on our maimed buildings what you do to avert such problems.   All we learned from our chat is that he suffered as devastating a strike not longer after our little incident.  Perhaps we should all drink white lightning to forget that we ever had to deal with the real thing.  Nonetheless, there are a clutch of websites and other sources that give us a little insight into lightning. 

PJK writes from New Haven that the text to pay attention to is R. H. Golde’s Lightning Protection, which unfortunately is out of print and sells for a king’s ransom.  It came into the world in 1975 (1973 according to other sources) from the Chemical Publishing Company in New York City.  It sets forth in some detail everything you never wanted to know about lightning rods and the several things you should know about deadhead wires to establish a proper ground.  Everybody says this is the classic book in the trade, but we really wonder how many have read it.   

Some minor thoughts for you, if your buildings take a hit.  Plan on it knocking out most of your minor appliances including your phones, a TV or two, etc.  Surge arresters will help computers, TVs, answering machines, and the like, if you have not been lucky enough to unplug things in advance.  It’s good to do so, incidentally, when you go away on summer vacations.  Make sure you not only run your current but your phone lines for these gadgets through the arresters:  Quite often you will lose your computer because of the modem hook-up, and not because of the electric line.  Major electrical motors can go out even a year after you are struck, so make sure you have some recourse with your insurance company in case things breakdown much later.  Buried cables and other lines belonging to the power company can deteriorate over a two month period after the strike, so have them checked if you experience an outage after you think all is cured. 

We have not checked to find out whether lightning is on the increase, but anecdotally we hear of more problems nationwide over the last 2 years.  The University of Florida maintains a Lightning Research Laboratory which indicates the high degree of interest the utility industry has in the whys and wherefores of lightning. Other centers of research can be found at   New Mexico, incidentally, has the highest rate of lightning fatalities in the nation.  Florida, Arkansas, and Wyoming are the other states where you may easily get hit by a bolt from the blue.  While there appears to have been a decline in the number of lightning deaths since the 1950s, lightning does account for more deaths than other natural disasters such as tornados and the like.  Given that lightning is associated with the 100,000 or so thunderstorms we experience each year, it’s an anomaly that we still do not know how to deal with it well.   

Should you want to take in a little tame lightning, go to Quemado, New Mexico where you can hope to see the best and the worse, as you survey the 400 stainless steel lightning rods stuck in the desert to attract vagrant electricity.  For more on this, see  Or see the Van de Graaff generator at the Boston Museum of Science, which can product some pretty heavy sparks.  See  And particularly see  More about lightning, Franklin, etc.  appears in Forbes, July 7, 2003, pp. 139-40.

Trout Around the World
James Prosek, who had done a lovely series of books about trout and fishing, is out with another gem, Fly-Fishing the 41st:  Around the World.  Beginning in 1998, he worked his way around the world in the 41st parallel, fishing as he went.  Turkey, Spain, Kyrgystan, and Japan all figure in his tale.  Be sure to see his other books as well such as:  Trout: An Illustrated History, Go Fish: Fishing Journal, Early Love and Brook Trout, and several others.

A Half Century Behind.  Pico Iyer, our favorite travel writer, goes back to Cuba frequently.  In his writings, we can get a  good idea of where the country’s at and what’s not going to happen next.  “The other great achievement of the Castro government, of course, is that its overnight arrest of history has left the island furnished with all the musty relics of the time when it was America’s dream playground, and many parts of Cuba still look and feel like museum pieces of the American empire….  The most aromatic of the culture’s features are, in many respects, the backward-looking ones:  the savor of rum in bars that Hemingway once haunted…..”  (See Iyer, Falling off the Map, “An Elegiac Carnival,” p. 58)  Our own suspicion, however, is that Cuba’s museum quality is inherent in the blood of the place, a clinging to the past that’s bigger than Castro.  As in so much Latin American poetry and painting, where you hear and see motifs popular in America 50 or even 100 years ago, Cuba has a purchase on the past.  But for the vast improvements in both health and education, and the suicidal murder of its economy, the core of Cuba holds to the ways of yore. 

Great Tree Books
Tom Pakenham, The Earl of Longford, writes about the great ones.  His first book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, was about wonderful old Irish and English trees, and it has sold 200,000 copies, way more than any of the histories or photography books he has authored.  Now he is out with Remarkable Trees of the World, where he does the same job for the rest of the globe, not only working up the text but taking all the photographs as well.  See The New York Times, November 12, 2002, p.D3.  The fun here is that he is just a passionate tree lover, less the scientist.  In fact, he feels he is a “tree hugger.”

Falling Off the Map
Perhaps the best and certainly the most original travel writer of our day is Pico Iyer.  Published in 1993, his Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World took us to such out-of-the-way spots as North Korea, Bhutan, and Paraguay, not the usual fare of even the more adventurous denizens of our planet.  “Lonely Places, then, are the places that are not on international wavelengths, do not know how to carry themselves, are lost when it comes to visitors.”  We think Iyer is not only a fine writer, but also a prophetic traveler who sees tomorrow in unseen places.   It’s in some of these spots, which run-of-the-mill mortals conspicuously ignore, that we occasionally discover local pioneers who are inventing the future.

Cabinet of Natural Curiosities
On Tuesday Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities crossed our doorstep. Published by Taschen, this marvelous, over-sized coffee-table book beautifully illustrates the fauna and flora collection of a wealthy 17th-century Dutchman who prized all the natural oddities he collected. This handsome volume is a reproduction of the original commissioned by Seba, which now resides in the Hague. It sells for $150, and we understand another printing is on the way. You will learn more about Seba and Taschen on Best of Class in future weeks.

Some Great Fishing Books
We will be adding to this list.  It is about both fish and fishing.  To our embarrassment, we don’t know where we got some of these names; they have been hanging out in our files for a long time, so somebody is due a lot of credit: 

11. Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis.  Howell Raines.  William Morrow, 1993.  We bought a bunch of these books on remainder and sent them to friends.  Howell Raines has been at the New York Times an awfully long time, spent a good spell as head of the editorial pages, and now resides in the top job as executive editor at the behest of the publisher.  Raines demonstrates what he is about in this fun book and shows as well why he made it to the top of the Times, why he is pretty good as head of the paper, and why he was not as good as the head of the opinion slot.  This is a pretty conventional fellow, good at telling a story or two, who knows how to play with people rather than think deep thoughts.  The book has a lot about crappies and trout, but it has more on the social mix of fishing, whether chatting about Hoover, fishing with George Bush, or going on about Richard Blacock, out of the State Department, who becomes sort of fishing mentor to our hero.  This is an easy read by a guy who shows up at fishing holes and knows all the right trappings, expressions, people.  We know (because we have read elsewhere) that he is passionate about fishing but here we feel like we have met the guy who perfectly plays the role of the perfect fisherman.  As executive editor, Raines is a populizer who brings in a common man story to exemplify big events and who includes more popular culture on the Times pages than we found there heretofore.  He has a nose for the hot story, not necessarily the important idea.  Hence, his midlife crisis that never is resolved.  He’s good at fish stories.

10. Red Smith on Fishing.  Doubleday, 1963.  He was the great civilized sports writer, and we have not found another like him.  (Out of print.  Try locating a used copy at

9. The Fly Fisher’s Reader.  Leonard M. Wright.  Jr. Simon and Schuster, 1990.  Short stories.

8. The Compleat Angler.  Izaak Walton (and Charles Cotton).  Stackpole Books, 1653, 1998, with innumerable editions inbetween.  This, of course, is the high literature of fishing texts, famous not only for its illustrations but also for its witty and eloquent depiction of a gentleman’s five-day fishing excursion.  Absolutely a must-read.

7. Fisherman’s Fall. Roderick Haig-Brown.  William Morrow, 1964.  Advice guy. 

6. The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide.  Tom Rosenbauer.  Lyons Press, 1988.  New York. 

5. Fishing Came First.  John N. Coal.  Lyons Press, 1997. 

4. Trout Bum.  John Gierach and Gary LaFontaine.  Fireside Books, 1988. Rockies. 

3. Trout Madness.  Robert Tarver.  Fireside, 1979.  Judge, writer, and great Michigan fisherman. 

2. A River Never Sleeps.  Robert Hague-Brown.  Nick Lyons, 1946.  (Out of print.  Try locating a used copy at

1. Early Love and Brook Trout.  James Prosek.  The Lyons Press, 2000.  Prosek does love and trout here.  Also, though, he has done a few beautiful books which we will have to list later, including his illustrated history of trout.  This guy has a way of making life seem idyllic, just right for summertime.

A Very Modern Man
The hotelier, Mohan Singh Oberoi, just died at 103, “but he said he was born in 1900 because he did not want to be seen as dating from the 19th century.”  The avant garde Oberoi introduced chambermaids into his hotels, banishing some of the male servants who had been there before—to the chagrin of turn-of-the-century Indian keepers of propriety when he was starting out.  Some of this is detailed in Bachi Karkaria’s Dare to Dream:  A Life of Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi.  See the New York Times, May 4, 2002, p. A13.

Follow Fallows
Right now, insanely, our air traffic goes slowly in and out of a few major airports.   But as James Fallows has portrayed for us in The Atlantic (see #65 in Big Ideas), soon enough we will be aboard new type mini-jets running in and out of the 9500 air facilities around the country.  This is where the airlines gotta go, and American is sort of trying this with the add-on of some new small jet service hither and thither from small cities to big cities.  See Mr. Fallows’ new book, incidentally:  Free Flight:   From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel.

Best Travel Bookstore in the Triangle
We were infected with the travel bug at an early age--probably the result of reading Richard Halliburton's 1925 classic, The Royal Road to Romance, about 50 times--and the pulse always beats a little faster when an exotic trip is in the offing.  Here in the Triangle, a first stop before any journey, whether to Juneau or Jaipur, might be World Traveler Books and Maps in Chapel Hill.  This pleasant, well-organized bookstore has a winning way of combining the usual guidebooks with other destination reading material.  Recently, guides to Egypt and Cairo shared a table with A Cafe on the Nile, Bartle Bull's novel of World War II intrigue, and a handsome volume of David Roberts' 19th-century lithographs of Egyptian pyramids and temples.  A full wall of maps will help you find your way to Fayetteville or Florence, while Replogie globes offer the armchair traveler the world.  If you can bear to sit through slide shows of other people's trips, the store has weekly talks by customers in the fall and spring.  Contact: World Traveler Books and Maps, 400 S. Elliott Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514.  Telephone: 919-933-5111.

Audubon Inc. Aloft
We had always thought Audubon to be America’s soaring wildlife artist, recorder of its natural life, particularly of its handsome birds, but took him to be a mediocre businessman who scraped the ground for a living, always ten feet from the pauper’s grave.  Richard Rhodes, author of John James Audubon: The Making of an American, sees him in quite a different light: “These facts should lay to rest once and for all the enduring canard that John James Audubon was ‘not a good businessman.’  His retail business failed in Henderson in 1819, like nearly every other business in the trans-Appalachian West….”  But the creation of his folios was not just an artistic triumph: it was a monumental financial achievement.

“By Audubon’s own estimate, the actual cost of producing The Birds of America …was $115,640—in today’s dollars, about $2,141,000.  Unsupported by gifts, grants or legacies, he raised almost every penny of that immense sum himself from painting, exhibiting and selling subscriptions and skins.”  He carefully controlled the flow of funds and drawings to his production man as well as the expeditions to collect specimens.  In general, he personally brought in most of his subscribers.  To wit, he was a successful naturalist, artist, production manager, and marketing impresario.

Best Falconer
Philip Glasier, the world's best modern falconer, died on September 11.  See New   York Times, September 23, 2000, B27.  Among his books were Falconry and Hawking, As The Falcon Her Bells, and A Hawk in the Hand.   The National Bird of Prey Center in England, started by him in 1967, has spread way beyond eagles to include 300 plus birds and 80 species.

Around the World
Heather Halstead and buddies just completed a 2-year round-the-world trip that she's been beaming into classrooms through the internet and other devices (see  While this does not measure up to Captain Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World, it's a better way of perpetuating school than hanging around campus as a graduate student.

The Year in Trees
J.C. Raulston, the late, well-loved curator of the arboretum at North Carolina State University, had friends all over the world, and sometimes when strolling among the 9,000 woody plants on the eight-acre grounds, it seems that they all sent him their favorite cuttings.  There is no better place in North Carolina to see in-depth collections of particular types of trees.  Magnolia-lovers will delight in the cluster of 165 specimens, many of which are in glorious bloom in late February and march.  There are equally extensive collections of redbuds and conifers, as well as many exquisite native species.   This is a collection designed for study, and trees sometimes seem to have plunked down without regard for the vistas they create.   For artistry, see the White Garden, modeled on Vita Sackville-West’s famed garden at Sissinghurst, and the 450-foot, award winning perennial border.  Just prior to his death in an auto accident, Raulston and Dr. Kim Tripp wrote, The Year in Trees (Timber Press, 1995), which describes the 150 vest trees and shrubs for our area.  Contact: The J.C. Raulston Arboretum at NCSU, 4301 Beryl Road, Raleigh, NC.  Telephone: 919-515-3125.  Website:

Best New Bird Watchers Book
David Allen Sibley of Concord, Massachusetts has turned out The Sibley Guide to Birds, which even seems to have displaced Roger Tory Peterson.  It weighs more than 2 ½ pounds, so you will not be carrying it around in your knapsack.   The whole Sibley family is into birds—the kind of passion that creates greatness.  Concord is home to all sorts of interesting people, many of whom are not really part of the academic/industrial complex Boston has become.

Chuck Leavell
How unlikely!  Chuck Leavell, who has played for rock groups such as the Allmans, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, also just happens to be a premier conservationist and treeman.  In Dry Branch, Georgia, he and his wife have covered his family’s 2,000-acre plantation, Charlane, with loblolly and slash pine, turning it “into a nature preserve that draws corporate hunting parties and budding foresters from Yale.”  See the New York Times, May 19, 2005, pp.D1 and D4.   

He’s authored two books, one on forestry called Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest, and a memoir, Between Rock and a Home Place.  Though he has testified before Congress on behalf of trees, “‘Chuck is not a celebrity spokesman who needs to look elsewhere for his message and inspiration,’ said Larry Wiseman, president of the American Forest Foundation, which represents 51,000 independent tree growers.”  Leavell, incidentally, serves on the board of this Foundation (www.forest  (6/1/05)

The Lord God Bird
“The ivory-billed woodpecker,” long thought to be extinct, “has been sighted in the cypress and tupelo swamp of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas…”  (New York Times, April 29, 2005).   It is “a creature called the Lord God bird, apparently because that is what people exclaimed when they saw it.  ...  With its 30-inch wingspan and formidable bill … the ivory bill was the largest of American woodpeckers, described … by Audubon as ‘the great chieftain of the woodpecker tribe.’ ...  The last documented sighting was in Louisiana in 1944.”  On February 11, 2004,  Gene M. Sparling III, out on a kayak trip, sighted the bird, which he noted on a website, eventually leading to confirmation by leading ornithologists (  See excellent Birder Blog, one of the best blogs we have seen, which tells of a forthcoming book about this discovery by Tim Gallagher called  The Grail Bird.  Also see www.  Ms. Laura Erickson, author of Birder Blog, does a moving essay on how the Lord God Bird helps us believe in things unseen (  If you are just starting to take a look at birds, as we, we recommend you take a look at our “Birding in North Carolina” note in Best of Triangle.  (5/11/05)

Best Book on Glacier Bay, Alaska
One of the world's great natural wonders is revealed in all its grandeur in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, a privately printed book by photographer Mark Kelly.   Crystalline blue glaciers, sleek pods of orcas, gorgeous sweeps of wildflowers--all this and more can be viewed in the pages of this photographic voyage through a magnificent, unspoiled wilderness.  Pictures of sea kayakers in the rain brought back vivid memories of our own expedition in these icy waters--but Kelly's photos are a lot better than ours.  This would be a fine gift for anyone who's been to Alaska, or who is contemplating a trip to this remarkable place.  To purchase the book directly from the photographer, contact: Mark Kelly, P.O. Box 20470, Juneau, AK, 99802.  Telephone: 888-933-1993.

Best Old Book About Alaska
The Scottish naturalist John Muir first saw Glacier Bay in 1879, just 12 years after the United States bought Alaska from Russia.  Climbing a thousand feet up a mountain in the rain, the clouds parted as Muir reached a vantage point: "...sunshine streamed through the luminous fringes of the clouds and fell on the green waters of the fjord, the glittering bergs, the crystal bluffs of the vast glacier, the intensely white, far-spreading fields of ice, and the ineffably chaste and spiritual heights of the Fairweather Range, which were now hidden, now partly revealed, the whole making a picture of icy wilderness unspeakably pure and sublime."  Though some now regard Muir as a egotistical arriviste, as adept at claiming credit for his "discovery" as any 21st-century publicity hound, his collected Alaska journals are mesmerizing.  We read excerpts of his extraordinary, almost off-hand explorations (preparation consisted of tossing "some tea and bread in an old sack and jump[ing] over the back fence") as we sailed through Glacier Bay.  Miraculously, it seems not to have changed enormously in the last century.  See: John Muir, Travels in Alaska (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Best New Book About Alaska
Just before leaving for Alaska, we were given Johnathan Raban's best-selling Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings  (Pantheon, 1999).  This too is a fine companion piece for a cruise up the Inside Passage.  The British-born Raban uses his lonely, often perilous thousand-mile voyage from Puget Sound to Alaska to reflect on his own life, the death of his father, his relationship with his young daughter and his troubled marriage.   Interspersed with Raban's account are often lugubrious excerpts from the log of George Vancouver who, as captain of the ship Discovery, explored the same turbulent waters and wild, mountainous coastline in 1792-1794.  Neither man had an entirely successful voyage: Raban survived thick fogs, dangerous whirlpools and submerged tree trunks only to face heartbreak in Juneau.  The middle-class Vancouver, clearly Raban's alter ego, never achieved recognition or respect from his aristocratic, fashionably Romantic ship's officers.  But the book is a superb piece of modern travel writing, the sort that uses terra incognita as a mirror for the soul.

Best of the Beekeepers
He just died.  Dr. Roger A. Morse of Ithaca, New York was the beekeeper’s beekeeper.  If you’re in doubt, purchase his The New Complete Guide to Beekeeping or A Year in the Beeyard, much sweeter territory than A Year in Provence.  Apparently, according to his obituary, he died with a sting on his eye, as will happen to those smitten by the bees.  (See New York Times, May 21, 2000, p. 23.)

The Sweep of Nature
We now have a resurgence of a literature that flourished under the Victorians, dramatic histories of the power of nature, the forces of the solar system, and the littleness of man.  In Edwardian eyes, we only amount to a brief bubble on earth, soon to be extinguished.  For a good summer read on the supernatural power of nature, Simon Winchester comes to mind.  He’s a journalist who educates and entertains about everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to the history of topographical maps.  For high nature drama, however, one would look at his Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, about a humdinger of a volcanic blowout that took place in Indonesia.   

Or you can look at another work that probes Asia.  It was well inside China, where Westerners did not go, that friends of ours met Winchester and family coming down river several years ago.  We guess this resulted in The River at the Center of the World, the story of the Yangtze, the river that made China what it is.  Of course, according to Winchester, it would not have been the river that set the civilized world in motion except for the fact that tectonics created a sudden diversion of the river at Shigu, a Great Bend that kept the waters inside China.  To paraphrase The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, here was a real tipping point, orchestrated by the sly hand of Mother Nature. 

Remaking America
It’s another less flashy work, however, that we find more spellbinding, provocative, even amazing.  The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Northern California garden writer Amy Stewart.  It’s much too fertile a book for us to capture even half of what she has to say.  In it we discover the profound effect worms have had on us, and learn of new roles they may play in the 21st century.  A flock of reviewers has sung its praises, and we like best what Baltimore Sun bookman Michael Pakenham, who is a new discovery for us and a very incisive critic, has to say about it: “Stewart writes clearly, and sometimes poetically.  Her fondness for Darwin is unbridled and her enthusiasm for worms approaches adoration.”  We recommend the whole of his analysis to you; see
em_reviews_long.htm#sun.  If you need a second opinion about this marvelous book, read Anne Raver, who is the gardening poobah at the New York Times.  Raver, incidentally, is great on well wrought gardens (

European Culture in America.  We make a great deal out of the divergent nationalities that make up America, and the polyglot culture they have created here.  But the greatest migration is less talked about, as Ms. Stewart reveals.  “As familiar as … [a] nightcrawler may seem, it is not indigenous to North America.  In fact, many of the works commonly found in American garden soil are not native.”  Many of our native worms probably got wiped out by the Ice Age 10,000 to 50,000 years ago.  It is the Europeans—underground Europeans—that have created the basis for American agriculture, since these wormy processors have vastly enriched the lands that have made our farms awesomely productive.  Surely it can be claimed that Lumbricus terrestis (the nightcrawler) and other European relatives have had more impact on North America than the people, the habits, or, indeed, the flock of diseases that flowed in from the Old World.  Charles Darwin estimated that there could be as many as 50,000 worms at work in an acre, but modern scientists have found that some land harbors a 1,000,000 or more.  That’s a lot of wormpower. For a quick overview of the world of worms, see   

After all his work on Origin of Species, we learn that Darwin settled down to his real avocation/vocation.  Of course, he had a fling with orchids which we must investigate: he chronicled this in 1862 in On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects.  But he saved the best for last, coming out with Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms in 1881.  He could not get enough of worms, working hard to establish their intelligence and their other sentient capacities: 

The billiard room at Down House was now devoted to worm experiments which included Darwin shining different colours of lights at them at night, his sons playing different musical instruments to them, different scents and kinds of food.  Other stimuli were ignored, but a bright white light or a touch of breath would make them bolt “like rabbits” into their burrows.  They appeared to “enjoy the pleasure of eating” showing “eagerness for certain kinds of food”, sexual passion was “strong enough to overcome ... their dread of light”, and he saw “a trace of social feeling” in their way of “crawling over each other's bodies”. Experiments showed that they dragged leaves into their burrows narrow end first, having somehow got a “notion, however rude, of the shape of an object”, maybe by “touching it in many places” with a sense like “a man ... born blind and deaf” and a rudimentary intelligence.  (From

Ms. Stewart discusses efforts to reclaim burnt-out lands with the aid of earthworms.  Equally striking are advanced experimental attempts to use earthworms as a means of  dealing with both animal and human wastes.  Scott Subler, a scientist out of Ohio State University, has founded his own worm compost company.  “We can process 250 to 350 tones of manure per year,” said Subler, and the worm castings can be used widely in gardening.  See Living Soil at     

In Orange County, Florida and Pacifica, California, engineers have devised recycling plants to deal with human waste.  Her uncle David Sands is involved with the Calera Creek Wate Recycling Plant, off Highway 1 in Pacifica.  There’s just one problem.  The marvelous plant produces 95% water, useful for irrigation.  But 5% of the output consists of smelly biosolids.  That’s where the worms come in.  Processing the solid residue, they take some smell out and puts some enrichment in.  Then the solids are useful for gardening and don’t have to be taken away to some sinkhole disposal site. 

As you can see, worms are a vital part of our agricultural infrastructure.  In this century, they may become part of system for getting rid of wastes, a giant size problem. They only remind us to pay attention to the unseen processes that make our lives possible.  

Infrastructure, as we have said, is America’s biggest problem and biggest opportunity.  It is broken, outmoded, and vastly undercapitalized.  There is not a piece of it—our electric grid, education, government, public transportation, computer and telephonic networks—that is not in trouble.  Every bit of it has wormholes in it.  As we have said in “Courtly Congressman Amory Houghton, Jr.,” the Eastern United States should make the infrastructure industry fundamental to its future economic development.  There’s a nickel to be made there.  Infrastructure probably will be where the real money will be made for the next 25 years, and the wise investor will put many long-term dollars into this sector. 


Beinhorn's Mesquite Cookery. Courtenay Beinhorn (10-09-13)

Corkscrewed. Robert Camuto (07-10-13)

Palmento:  A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, Robert V. Camuto (05-23-13)

Harry's Bar: 1911-2011, Isabelle MacElhone

Ottolenghi: The Cookbook ­- 2010 (04-07-10)

Benjamin Wallace – The Billionaire’s Vinegar – 2009 (01-06-10)

Fergus Henderson - The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating – 2004 (09-30-09)

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite – 2009 -- Dr. David A. Kessler

A Broth of a Man
We were there to meet up with Ian Williams, a journalist and jolly troublemaker from Liverpool, who’s now part of Manhattan and a scribbler who can ramble on most any subject.  We were to talk about rum, an import which, as we said in “Rum at Its Best,” we are beginning to investigate.  Williams is out with Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, a tale we are avid to read.  Since we sampled a few rums with him, accompanied by Guinness, and since we talked about everything under the sun, we hardly got to the subject at hand.

His first book was The Alms Trade: Charity, Past, Present, and Future.  But he’s evolved.  There had always been a little fondness for rum in his family, and this was rekindled when he was in Martinique.  There he discovered that there were a raft of very well-wrought Caribbean rums that none of us know much about, since the big spirits companies have sewed up the global booze trade with their commodity brands that pretend to have taste.  Bacardi, in particular, has become the Wal-Mart of the rum business.  What Williams teaches us in his book is that rum was a catalyst for our own Revolution, as the Brits tried to mess about with the rum trade, enacting noxious little laws such as  the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act, and the like. 

How very appropriate that America once celebrated the Fourth of July with Fish House Punch, since rum is what gives it its wallop.  Herein the Crown learned not to come between a colonial and his drink.  The British have a passion for playing on addictions:  their opium trade, sourced in India, led to the opium wars and the end of China’s empire. 

Williams is a big and hearty man, a jolly companion as well as a good read.  Throw in a rum that has some art to it and you have quite an evening.  That’s what eating and drinking are all about—friendship and craft. 

Getting to Indonesia
In 1982 James Oseland invited Tanya Alwi for coffee in North Beach (maybe Caffe Trieste). And that’s how he got to Indonesia.  A college student from the suburbs and a son of a copier salesman, he’d only been as far as Mexico.  But she said, “Why don’t you come to Indonesia after the summer is over….  You can stay at our house in Jakarta over the summer vacation.”  That’s how a film student began to learn about Indonesia and, as an adult, to make his way into food as editor of Saveur.  It also gave birth to Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.  In this part of the world, at the origins of spice, we discover what separates the bland from the beautiful today, be it pepper, or nutmeg, or cinnamon, or fresh ginger.  This is what brings back taste to a long, hot summer which would otherwise drain the soul.

Weapons-Grade Whiskey
On February 27, the Times of London wrote about a whiskey so powerful that it could knock your socks off.  And that’s what happened to the Times.  Although this news item was one of the day’s top stories, the concoction was so powerful that it knocked the Times Online computers for a loop, and you will find an error message when you try to dial into the story.  In fact, official at the Times and elsewhere in the Murdoch empire have still not been able to find the story.  It had a great headline: “Try the 92 per cent weapons-grade whisky that will take your breath away. Literally.”  Fortunately we have been able to recapture David Lister’s masterpiece elsewhere: 

A single drop of the ancient drink of ‘usquebaugh-baul’ was described by the travel writer Martin Martin in 1695 as powerful enough to affect “all members of the body.”  He added: “Two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose; if any man should exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life.”

Twelve barrels of the world’s most alcoholic whisky, or enough to wipe out a medium-size army, will be produced when the Bruichladdich distillery revives the ancient tradition of quadruple-distilling today.  With an alcohol content of 92 per cent, the drink may not be the most delicate single malt ever produced but it is by far and away the world’s strongest.  Malt whisky usually has an alcohol content of between 40 per cent and 63.5 per cent.” 

Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s master distiller, said that the quadruple-distilled whisky would be very similar to the spirit sampled by Martin on Islay in 1695, which he later described in A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1703.  Most whisky is distilled just twice.

He said: “It will be very floral, but most importantly it will take your breath away.” “Bruichladdich has a reputation among Scotland’s distilleries for being one of the more eccentric and outspoken.  After the American drinks maker Jim Beam halted production in 1994, the distillery was bought for £6.5 million in 2000 by a group led by Mr Reynier.  It is seeking to establish itself as one of a small number of privately run distilleries.”

We have tried to be in touch with Bruichladdich about their quadruple, but the distillers have been singularly unresponsive.  We presume they have been drinking their own brew, which is equivalent to believing one’s own propaganda.  We hope both the Bruich people and the staff at the Times will soon be resuscitated.  But newspapermen no longer hold their drink very well: they mostly like to talk about it.  See “The Whiskey with 92% Alcohol,” which even has an Islay map in case you choose to rush off to the distillery.  (4/26/06)

We can’t even tell you for sure that this is a great place; we have never been there.  But it has a mythic quality about it, and we understand that people from far and near will buy product off the shelves here, sometimes at prices well above the market, simply because it comes from Zingerman’s.  For sure it’s a stop when you are in Ann Arbor.  As you can see on its website, the Zingermeisters have mastered the art of line extension, and in truth we probably should have put this entry in our Agile Companies section.  Though it dates back to 1982, the two founders have already built such a reputation that they have been able to create 6 businesses and become instant authorities, having authored Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating.  Apparently they put together a business plan that mattered in 1994, and it’s been smooth sailing since.  Read about how this deli came to be in Reveries Magazine.  “By 2009, Zingerman's hopes to have 12 to 15 enterprises, with a chocolatier and coffee roaster vying to be next,” according to USA Today.  Incidentally, Zingermann’s has made all sorts of hoopla out of being customer friendly and dares to train employees for other firms, yet it does not supply decent contact information on its site, and you have to hire private detectives to find its phone number.  Its number and address are: Zingerman’s Deli.  422 Detroit Street.  Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. 734-663-3354.  (3/29/06)

Rick's Pickles
Well, Rick’s Place used to be in Casablanca, the centerpiece of the black and white world of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman set against Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet, back in 1942 when all Europe wrestled with World War II.  (For those of you who are into trivia, incidentally, the original title of the movie was “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”)  But now we are talking about one Rick Field, who has dropped out of the TV production world and settled down on the Lower East Side in New York’s once-upon-a-time Pickle District.  You can find Rick’s Picks at 195 Chrystie Street, closeted in 602E.  Telephone: 212-358-0428.

There’s more than a little romanticism involved in this Ivy League enterprise that has chosen to make its home among the few remaining pickle folken.  Rick, 42, is a Yalie, and his partner, Lauren McGrath, is out of Princeton.  He hawks his wares at the Union Square Market.  Over-endowed with the gift of gab, he has been able to put together a network of relationships that has landed the business on the map.  At least a sample of his products has reached specialty stores in 17 states across America.  And he has excelled, above all else, at peddling his story to the press.  On his website, you can find articles from the New York Times, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, etc.

He bills his picks as artisinal pickles.  In short, they are pretty darn good, even if, as the French are wont to say, they are tres cher, out on the shelves at $10 in one specialty food store.  Right now he produces them in Poughkeepsie at a packer, so his production costs are high, and he even has to pay quite a price to farmers for the cukes, dill, and other makings that lead to top-dog pickles.  Eventually, he will have to work his costs and his prices down if he is to secure strong, repeat volume.

We’re very much for Spears of Influence, which are Kirby cucumbers in a cumin-scented brine.  First off, they’re just plain delicious.  But the witty product name tells us why Field has been such a hit with the press.  Should he acquaint himself further with the range of spices that can make penultimate pickles, we think he may go down in pickle history. 

There’s a bit of buzz surrounding America’s Pickle Revival, all very much worth exploring.  The itinerant New York Food Museum is very much wrapped up in its pickle wing and the International Pickle Day having become an annual event.  You can find out more about the Pickle District at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in an interview with Lucy Norris, author of Pickled, and in a Boston Globe tour of pickledom, which highlights Guss Pickles, the one major survivor in the area.  Once a year, too, one can go to the Woodstock of the pickle world, the next Rosendale Pickle Festival, scheduled for November 19, 2006.  To get a wider view of pickles across America, read Denise Purcell’s “The Comeback of the Pickle.”  We asked Mr. Field what he read to stay abreast of the field.  He mentioned  Janet Greene’s Putting Food By, Linda Ziedrich’s Joy of Pickling, and Chris Schlesinger’s (of East Coast Grill fame) Quick Pickles.  (12/21/05)

East Coast Grill
We forget about this wonderful restaurant in Cambridge, just a hop and a skip away from Boston, a restaurant we frequented quite a bit after its opening in 1985 (or was it 1987, as the Boston Globe suggests?).  Now it has become quite an old chestnut, and every bit as fun.  We arrived a bit early recently and bumped into owner Chris Schlesinger, who explained why he could not give us a drink (it would attract a horde of customers before his crew could handle them) but who, nicely, gave us a comfortable seat at the bar where we chatted with his very nice fellow there.  He and the staff universally have a warmness about them and, to boot, they actually know the food pretty well. It’s probably more relaxed than the other good eateries around Cambridge, peopled as they are by undercover PhDs.  Schlesinger lives in Westport: we understand that he fishes a lot and drinks Pabst’s Blue Ribbon, a paradoxical beer with a following that springs from its lack of advertising.  (See our “Bloom—In Praise of Divorce.”)  He seems to be lead a more civilized life that most restaurateurs.  Our guest had a big chop, while we put down the shrimp and scallops—both were outstanding.  He has six or so cookbooks: we picked up Let the Flames Begin that night, after we pressed him for a recommendation.  But The Thrill of the Grill, or License to Grill, or any of the others will do just as well.  As is obvious from these titles, he thinks he is quite a flamethrower, a stealth pyromaniac.  We cooked salmon his way recently and washed it with his sauce—what a treat!  East Coast Grill.1271 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02139. Tel: 617-491-6568. Website:  (11/30/05)

Best on French Bread
As it turns out, it’s taken a Cornell professor of history who hails from Brooklyn to write the definitive history of French bread.  Steven Kaplan is author of The Best Bread in the World: The Bakers of Paris in the 18th Century (Fayard, 1996).  “In his 2002 book, ‘The Return of Good Bread,’ Mr. Kaplan tells how a new generation of bakers took up the slow-fermentation cause in the 90’s....”  “He is finishing work on a guidebook devoted to sifting out the finest Paris bakeries (there are 1,273 to choose from).”  See The New York Times, November 29, 2003,  pp.A15 and A31.

Adriana’s Caravan.  “I’ll be in my office all day,” said Rozelle Zabarkes, when we asked for a chat.  Her office turns out to be a tiny desk and chair wedged behind the counter of Adriana’s Caravan in Grand Central Market.  Most out-of-town visitors still do not know about the delights of this food court on the lower level of the nation’s most famous railroad terminal.  Here you can find the ingredients for a magnificent repast: Malpeque oysters, white asparagus or salsify, a prime rib roast, cheeses from Murrays (say, abbaye de citeaux montbellard, a cow’s milk cheese made by monks in a Burgundian buttery), and dark bittersweet Lil-lac chocolate, plus wines from a shop around the corner.  And all the spices you’ll need to pull it together. 

Zabarkes turned failure into success through sheer force of will and a passion for cooking and spices.  She dumped a business in corporate film production to open her dream:  Adriana’s Bazaar, an Upper Westside shop where customers could sit around a table and leaf through ethnic recipe notebooks, then buy the spices they needed.  (Adriana is her adored daughter.)  “I had $300,000 in loans, but I really needed $400,000.  It was a great idea, but I couldn’t sell enough spices to pay the rent.”  She retreated to a mail order business, then was invited to open a store in Grand Central Market. 

Today her thriving business bears the brash motto: “Every ingredient for every recipe you’ve ever read.”  She stocks 1,500 products, of which roughly 400 are spices.  This is the sort of place where you can pick up real Japanese wasabi, Moroccan preserved lemons, and Tuscan chestnut blossom honey.  While we were there, a couple from Virginia stopped by for two bottles of Jamaican Pickapeppa Sauce.  (“We just drove in and you’re our first stop!”)  If you want to taste the difference between Ceylon cinnamon and three varieties of cassia, this is the place to come.  (Click here to read about cinnamon and cassia in the new issue of SpiceLines.)  If you’re interested in pepper, there are 21 possibilities; vanilla fiends can sample beans from Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.  

Though the familiar spices sell well, Zabarkes is always on the hunt for something new and different.  Asafetida, for instance.  “It smells like something died on the spice rack, but it is wonderful in food, sort of garlicky tasting,” she laughs.  “It’s great on fish and it’s used in Indian cooking.”  Unusual ingredients not only fit her product philosophy, but garner the kind of publicity a small business needs.  A short piece on Indian black salt in the New York Times led to a run on the item.  “We sold out the same day.”  If you want to learn more about either of these ingredients, check out Zabarkes’s cookbook, Adriana’s Spice Caravan.  The entry on asafetida begins, “How does one wax poetic about a seasoning whose aliases are devil’s dung and stinking gum?  Quite simply, one does not….” 

All About Sea Salt
Ms. Marlene Parrish of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette authored an excellent sea salt primer called “Sea Salt Adds Wave of Extra Zip and Crunch” at  Her husband is Robert L. Wolke, author of What Einstein Told His Cook, who provided her with background on the differences between land-mined and sea salt.  Kosher salt, for instance, seems best used in sauces, while the different sea salts do best as toppings.  She then goes on to provide a rundown on some of the finer sea salts—Fleur de sel, Naruma Sea Salt, Peruvian Pink Sea Salt, Australian Murray River Salt Flakes, Hawaiian Black Lava Salt, Hawaiian Red Aloe Salt, South African Sea Salt, Mexican Benequenes, and Maldon Sea Salt.

The Science of Food
The New York Times
reports growing interest in molecular gastronomy or, as it paraphrases it, “food science.”  See “The Food Geek,” September 19, 2003, pp. W1 and W18.  Mentioned in this regard is Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking:  The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and Shirley Corriher, a chemist and cook(see her Cookwise:  The Secrets of Cooking Revealed).  The American Chemical Society has done a “Cooks with Chemistry” series, and “Good Eats” apparently is the Food Network’s entry in the science arena.  Several impressive articles have appeared in regional newspapers detailing how the ingredients of food come together and how they impart their flavor.  In theory at least, some think we may have more interesting eats, if not more healthy food, by studying the chemical make-up and transformation of all that we throw in the pot.

Doc's Secret Cookbook List
Doc Holladay, by day, is a stock broker par excellence in the state of Arkansas.  But his real passions are traveling (he's been everywhere) and cooking, the ideas for which stem from his very extensive cookbook collection.  The following he thinks are some bests you may not have heard of, and he tells you why: 

Contemporary Italian by Robert Helstrom.  America’s favorite restaurant cuisine adapted for the home kitchen.  Uncomplicated but detailed instructions.  Great risotto tips.  A true gem.

Beinhorn’s Mesquite Cookery by Courtenay Beinhorn.  Mesquite is more available and the season is here.  This book is from a gal raised in mesquite country.  Not your same old brisket/rib recipes but grilling with a flair.  For example, try the chicken livers with morels.  Delicious.

The Good Egg by Marie Simmons.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  Eggs are supposed to be bad for you, but this is a must-have when you indulge yourself.  Everything you ever wanted to know, etc.

The Quick Recipe from Cooks Illustrated.  A brand new one from one of my favorite food magazines.  Real recipes that really work for real people in a real hurry.  The stir fry section alone is worth the cost.

A Treasury of Great Recipes by Vincent and Mary Price.  You probably have heard of this one but it must be included in any cookbook list.  A beautiful collection of menus from the world’s most famous restaurants.  Nostalgia at it's best.

Cookbook of the Moment: Delights from the Garden of Eden
A recent segment on PBS' The News Hour with Jim Lehrer dealt with a curious phenomenon:  the sudden, though not completely unexpected, fascination of Americans with Iraq.  The war and ensuing occupation have etched the names of cities like Basra and Mosul into our consciousness.  The fate of the Mesopotamian antiquities looted from Baghdad's museums haunts many in the West. offers 1,427 books explaining the past, present and future of Iraq.  In short, we are getting a fast, furious education about the politics and culture of the blighted land that was once the cradle of civilization.

Now comes Delights from the Garden of Eden, an extraordinary cookbook that traces the ancient roots of Iraqi cuisine.  Nawal Nasrallah, a former professor of English literature at Baghdad University, fled Iraq in 1990 just after the invasion of Kuwait, eventually settling with her family in Bloomington, Indiana where her husband was working on his doctorate.  For six years, she poured her heart, soul and memories into this 646-page volume, after suffering  breast cancer and the death of her 13-year old son Bilal from a brain hemorrhage.   When 20 publishers turned down the book, she published it herself for $1,000.  (See "Taking Comfort from an Unexpected Source," The New York Times, April 2, 2003, page D5.)

This is a wonderful book, both for reading and  cooking.  In a chatty, unassuming way, Nasrallah communicates her enthusiasm for a cuisine that at its peak was both sumptuous and sensuous.  She writes of her childhood in Baghdad, where she picnicked on the site of the ancient wall of Nineveh, on ground strewn with shards of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform characters.  She draws from recipes that were written thousands of years ago, creating a vibrant portrait of a civilization that celebrated food in astonishing variety.  Mesopotamian tablets from 1700 BC record recipes for 300 types of bread, 100 kinds of soup and 20 cheeses.  Medieval cookbooks from the 13th century AD included elaborate stews flavored with rosewater and ambergris.  

There are 400 recipes in the cookbook, many based on centuries-old culinary traditions. The medieval-style Fish baked in Pomegranate Sauce (p. 396) was a revelation:  We substituted catfish fillets for the carp that might have been plucked from the cold waters of the Tigris, dipped them in salt, pepper and cumin, than sautéed them in olive oil until golden brown.  A luscious sweet-tart sauce of pomegranate syrup, coriander and ground toasted walnuts was poured over the fish, which was briefly baked.  Rich, delicate and exotic, it transformed the lowly bottom-feeder into a dish fit for a caliph.   

Contact:  1st Books Library of Bloomington.  Website:  Telephone:  (888) 280-7715.  See also Mrs. Nasrallah's website:

Best Book About Tea
Last week, an unexpected twist led to a delightful conversation with James Norwood Pratt, America’s foremost authority on tea.  A native of Winston Salem, North Carolina and resident of San Francisco, Pratt is the author of The Tea Lover’s Treasury, a classic reference guide for nearly any lover of the leaf.  (Currently, that would include the 30 percent of all Americans who drink tea everyday; annual adult per capita consumption is about seven gallons.  Such brisk consumption,  Pierce Hollingsworth writes in Food Technology, makes tea a $4.75 billion industry that has grown a spritely 125 percent over the last decade.)

Since The Tea Lover’s Treasury was first published in 1982, we have consulted it often, dipping into its pages as much for Pratt’s engaging tales of the origins of the brew as for his vivid observations of different types of teas.  His writing is witty, occasionally poetic, always acute.  Here he is on Gyokuro Green Tea:  “If you imagine that a pale Green Tea has to be weak and flavorless, Gyokuro will surprise you.  It’s mouthfilling and rich, with a very complex herbaceous quality....  If the Chinese lean toward flavors somehow reminiscent of root vegetables in Green Tea, the Japanese just as surely prefer theirs to suggest brewed yard grass.  It’s a cleaner taste, you might say, but a thinner one, sometimes evanescent almost.”  The book is filled with many irresistible gems of information, such as the German ritual of parachuting in an early consignment of first flush, high grown Darjeeling tea, “a gesture that rather dwarfs the annual French enthusiasm for the Beajolais nouveau.”

Inexplicably, this valuable resource appears to be out of print, but  a few copies of both the first and second editions can be found at  In June, Pratt’s latest endeavor will make its appearance:  Tea Room Guide and Digest, a magazine that will embrace the entire world of tea, ranging from history and industry trends to antique teapot collecting, tea room reviews and tea travel tales.  With Pratt at the helm, it is likely to be a most pleasurable read.  Website:  Telephone:  800/578-0591.

Even Better Mexican Chocolate
Some things really do get better.  Not too long ago we extolled the virtues of Ibarra chocolate, a widely available, commercially manufactured Mexican chocolate.  Now, we are delighted to report that we are one step closer to being able to buy true Mexican chocolate, just as it is made in Oaxaca.  Susanna Trilling, author of Seasons of My Heart and owner of a cooking school outside Oaxaca, makes chocolate using traditional Mayan methods.  She buys her own cacao beans, roasts them, and grinds them until they are the texture of coarse sand.  She adds sugar and grinds in sticks of soft Ceylon cinnamon favored by Mexican cooks, and forms the mixture into rough handmade bars.  The result is a grainy, bittersweet chocolate bar, redolent of cinnamon, as delicious eaten out of hand as it is frothed in hot milk.  Either way, it will bring a touch of sweetness to a bitter season.  Contact:  Zingerman’s, 422 Detroit Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. Telephone:  888-636-8162.  Fax: 734-477-6988.  (Not available on website,  Also see our thoughts on the formerly "Best Mexican Chocolate."

Wine Buyer's Guide
Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide (sixth edition) is just over 1600 pages, but it is the 40-page introduction that we find most compelling.  There you can learn that Australian and California vintners pump a lot of extra acidity into their concoctions.  And a careful reading suggests that just as wine criticism is reaching new heights (due to stalwarts such as Hugh Johnson, Robert Parker, and Jancis Robinson), wine itself may be on a downward course.  This is frequently the plight of the critic:  we remember New York theater of the 1960s onward where some of the critics were at their brightest, but they had to make a lot out of nothing, because theatrical fare was in rapid decline.

In his introduction, Parker bemoans the practices of several high-volume producers.  Over-fertilizing, they are going for excessive crop yields while harvesting too early:  their grapes lack taste.  Then centrifuging, fining, and filtration produce stable, standard, very average wines that Parker characterizes as lifeless.  Mass manufacturing and mass marketing are putting increasing amounts of expensive wines on the shelf that are much less than they should be.  Parker, whose massive influence was celebrated in "The Million-Dollar Nose," an article very much worth reading that appeared in the December 2000 Atlantic Monthly, seems to know he cannot staunch the flood of quantity (annual wine production exceeds demand by some 25%, according to the article) that is sweeping away quality.

Best Guide for Pepper Travelers
Our kitchen table peregrinations through the lands of pepper were helped immeasurably by Salt and Pepper, a wonderful book by Michele Anna Jordan that was recommended by Corby Kummer in The Atlantic Monthly:  Jordan is funny, smart and probably has a very keen palate.  We were charmed by her visit to the Malaysian Pepper Marketing Board, where the aroma of bushels of fresh black pepper nearly drove her mad with hunger, and to a nearby farm where she downed potent rice wine and nibbled fresh green pepper berries off the vine.  There is good, solid information about the different varieties of pepper and salt and many useful addresses in the glossary.  Our only frustration is that we have been unable to find the very fine Malaysian pepper, sold under the label Naturally Clean Black Pepper, but it is always good to have a grail to search for.  The book has 135 recipes, including one for black pepper ice cream, which we made with Penzeys' Sarawak Black peppercorns:  imagine a good vanilla ice cream with a luscious afterburn. Salt and Pepper (New York: Broadway Books, 1999) is out of print, but you may find a used copy at

All About Oysters
We learn from Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, his bestselling account of his doings in the food trade, about a seminal event on a trip to Europe with his parents back when he was in the fourth grade.  There, in the Gironde, he proudly had his first oyster, boldly stepping out and eating the offering of an oysterman, while his parents and brother timidly held back from the raw morsel.  We were surprised that his family were reluctant seafood eaters, since he styled them to be “foodies.”  Again and again, we find, so-called “foodies” are not really food people, having an eye, but not a taste, for rare fare. 

The oyster he found set him on course for a life as a cook and for experimentation in the delicacies of this world.  Since then the world has almost become his oyster, but it remains slightly out of reach.  Indeed, the oyster has been associated with a lust for life since time immemorial, apparently a prod even to Bourdain’s listless generation.  None of us can forget the licentious oyster scene in the classic 1963 film version of Tom Jones.  And all of us have heard that Casanova lined his belly with oysters aplenty as prelude to his amatory exploits (

Best French Seasalt
Salt, as all dedicated foodies know, is riding the crest of a wave of culinary chic.  Recently we tasted  a French fleur de sel, “a premium first harvest sea salt from Brittany” made by M. Gilles Hervy, an “artisan paludier du pays Guerandais.”  According to Corti Brothers, the Sacramento grocer from whom  we obtained this salt, a recent hurricane nearly destroyed the salt operations on the Guerande Peninsula and the Hervys are one of the few remaining families of paludiers, or salt-marsh workers, who continue to harvest sea salt in the traditional manner.  It is an ancient, time-consuming process in which sea water is captured in reservoirs at high tide and then directed into a maze of channels ending in shallow pools.  Along the way, the water slowly evaporates and at the end, the salt crust that remains is raked into piles of grey sea salt, in itself a superb seasoning full of trace minerals that give it a wonderful flavor.  As Patricia Wells explains in The Paris Cookbook, the finest, whitest crystals appear at the rim of the ponds only when a dry wind blows from the east; these fluffy crystals are skimmed and left to dry in wicker baskets.  The resulting fleur de sel is, she says, the “caviar of salt,” four times as expensive as the coarser variety and coveted by chefs the world over.

But how does it taste?  Upon opening the pale sea green bottle, we discovered a slightly moist, creamy white salt composed of irregularly shaped crystals ranging from very fine to fairly large. We couldn’t detect the scent of violets often mentioned in connection with fleur de sel, but found its delicate flavor elusive, almost teasing, the mellow saltiness waxing and waning until it dissolved on the tongue, leaving behind a lingering hint of sweetness.  This is a salt we’d use very sparingingly to finish the simplest dishes made with the most pristine ingredients.  We can recommend Wells’ recipe for Noirmoutier Potates with Fleur de Sel (pp. 100-101).  Tiny baby potatoes grown on the island of Noirmoutier—Americans can substitute almost any fingerling potato—are gently cooked in butter with unpeeled garlic and coarse seasalt, then finished with a sprinkling of fleur de sel.  Contact:  Corti Brothers, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95819.  Telephone: 800-509-FOOD.  Fax: 916-736-3807.

Best Japanese Salt
Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue’s very funny, very Rabelasian food columnist and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, must have the best job in the world.  When he was researching “Salt Chic,” (Vogue, March 2001) he first bought up all the exotic salts he could lay his hands on, then commissioned minute chemical analysis reports, and finally hopped on a plane for Scicily where he asked scientists attending a conference on molecular gastronomy to serve as salt tasters, in order to determine whether expensive premium seasalts are at all distinguishable from table salt like Mortons.  Along the way he raved about Oshima Island Blue Label Salt, a very rare Japanese salt “evaporated from the primordial seawater around Oshima Island in the middle of the vast and empty ocean, forty five minutes by plane from Tokyo” and available only to Japanese members of the very exclusive Salt Road Club and, of course, to Jeffrey Steingarten.

Actually, you and I can buy Oshima Island Blue Label and its lesser twin, Red Label, through Corti Brothers.  To the unscientific eye, Blue Label is almost indistinguishable from fleur de sel.  It too is moist, pale and creamy in color, and composed of irregular large and small crystals, but there the similarities end.  Oshima Island Blue Label has a much more straightforward, full-throttle salty flavor that builds then fades as the crystals dissolve, leaving behind a tingle and the slightest taste of briny seawater.  Like fleur de sel, we’d use Blue Label to finish very high quality, simply prepared ingredients, perhaps halibut steamed over rice wine with a few tender vegetables.  Oshima Island Red Label is intensely salty and were it not for its high price, we’d probably use it to prepare fish baked in a salt crust.  Contact:  Corti Brothers, 5801 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95819.  Telephone: 800-509-FOOD.  Fax:  916-736-3807.

Best Book About the History of Chocolate
The True History of Chocolate  (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996) is a meticulously researched investigation into the misty origins of Theobroma cacao, the tropical tree that produces one of the Western world's most addictive pleasures.  Wrtitten by the late anthropologist and food historian Sophie D. Coe and her husband and Yale anthropology professor emeritus, Michael D. Coe, the book traces chocolate’s beginnings in the ancient Maya and Aztec cultures where it was a beverage imbued with deep religious symbolism, quaffed mainly by royalty, through its introduction to the conquering Spaniards and hence to all of Europe.

According to her husband, Mrs. Coe was never happier than when she was perusing musty pages of 400-year-old volumes in the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome.  The book  shines as she weaves together original sources as varied as Maya hieroglyphs, laboratory analysis of burial vessels and early Spanish manuscripts.  Though she may not convince you that the Aztecs were less bloodthirsty than history recalls (only a few thousand a year sacrificed as opposed to tens of thousands), it impossible not to be fascinated with her well-documented linguistic research into the derivation of the word “chocolate,” or the ways in which cacao seeds were used in place of money in early Meso-American civilization.  Most intriguing for us were the ancient recipes in which the cold bitter brew was flavored with everything from chilli peppers to aphrodisiacal flowers.

Best Coffee Table Book About Spices
The most seductive volume we’ve run across lately is Alain Stella’s The Book of Spices (Paris: Flammariion, 1998).  Beautiful photographs of the twelve “sovereign” spices—cloves, nutmeg, pepper and so forth—are interspersed with ancient maps and historical paintings, creating an intoxicating visual essay that hints at why these precious commodities so captured the world’s imagination over the centuries.  Brilliant fields of purple saffron crocus in Spain, and a glimpse of Maison Israel in Paris, a spice lover’s paradise if ever there was one, are the stuff of a traveler’s dreams.

On a bleak afternoon, snuggling under a mohair throw, with a steaming pot of cinnamon tea nearby, we nearly lost ourselves in Stella’s occasionally Franco-centric tales of the spice trade.  One of the more fascinating figures from the past was Pierre Poivre, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who singlemindly devoted his entire life—losing an arm in the process—to stealing nutmeg and clove plants so that France could break the Dutch stranglehold.  The chapters on each spice are a pleasure to peruse; the connoisseur's guide in the back offers intriguing information about spices used in perfumes and chocolate, as well as a list of the author’s favorite spice shops in the U.S., England and France.

Tastes of Paradise
For anyone who is interested in the history of spices, The Epicentre has reprinted a superb article from The Economist, “The Spice Trade:  A Taste of Adventure”  (December 1998, pp. 51-56), and a chapter from Tastes of Paradise, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, which debunks the common perception that spices were used so heavily in the Middle Ages to disguise rotting food.  Instead, he argues that they were tangible gifts form an exotic world, an imaginary paradise far superior to the muddy, cold, disease-ridden realities of medieval Europe.  Just like our BMWs and Hermes Kelly Bags, they were meant to advertise the possessor's wealth and status to the rest of the world.

Quirkiest Spice WebsiteDragon’s blood, spikenard, grains of paradise. Virtually unknown today, these are all spices that were used in ancient and medieval times. They can still be had from the website ( of Francesco Sirene, Spicer, a 15th-century Venetian trader invented by David Dendy and Jane Hanna, two members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  Members of this offbeat group tend to be obsessed with times past: they try to live as one might have in 13th-century England or 17th-century Russia (for example), and regularly stage complicated feasts which recreate outlandish dishes from old cookery books.  

The proprietors’ aim is to provide all the paraphernalia one might need for historical cookery.  Hence, Sirene sells old cookbooks, such as Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century, as well as exotic, hard to find spices--including the aforementioned dragon’s blood (actually a red resin used in incense and various pigments) and spikenard (a bitter, aromatic root used in ancient Rome and in medieval spiced wine).  One of the most intriguing sections is Spice Chests, which discusses in some detail all the spices one might need in order to cook as did the ancient Romans or Norwegians of the 12th century. (In case you were wondering, grains of paradise are a type of pepper, wildly sought after in the Middle Ages, now mainly used in African cooking.)

Most Exotic Spice Website in the Southern Hemisphere
Most of the spices in our cupboard are grown within a narrow band around the equator and it occurred to us that a spice purveyor not too distant from the black pepper groves of Malabar or the cinnamon forests of Sri Lanka might have a slight edge in obtaining high quality, very fresh spices.  One can almost smell these exotic fragrances while perusing the Australian site,  Ian Hemphill, a.k.a. Herbie, spent 30 years in the spice trade before opening a shop near Sydney which offers an enormous range of the world’s herbs and spices.

The website vividly communicates Hemphill’s lifelong love of spices.  Click on any one of the 22 newsletters, for example, and you’ll discover a report on a trip to India to see the pepper harvest or a lively discussion of the complex fragrances of the Moroccan seasoning mix, ras al hanout. Tantalizing recipes, many with an Asian slant, are scattered throughout the site.  The global product list includes all the usual herbs and spices, but also more off-beat offerings such as dried Australian wattleseed, said to lend a coffee-like aroma to ice cream.  Our only quibble is that each product description is accompanied by a generic picture of some spice packages.  (We’d actually like to see those wattleseeds.)

Currently in search of pepper to upgrade the larder, we ordered a variety of peppercorns including the hard to find long pepper (spiky peppers with a musky odor widely used in medieval recipes) and inky “extrablack” supergrade whole peppercorns from India.  Our faxed order was acknowledged hours later by e-mail, with a query:  Did we wish to purchase green peppercorns that could be ground in a peppermill or freeze dried peppercorns that could simply be crumbled?  (We took both.)  The package arrived within 10 days, each variety individually packed in a heavy vacuum-sealed plastic bag. (The peppercorns will be reviewed in a forthcoming segment of Best of Class).

Note:  Hemphill’s fascinating Spice Notes may be ordered directly from the website, or in the U.S. in March 2002 under the title, The Spice and Herb Bible:  A Cook's Guide (Amazon).  The book recently made the Saveur 100 list  (see the Jan./Feb., 2002 issue, p. 63).

The Time of Tea
With rare exceptions, most books about tea are really about the scones, the clotted cream and a nostalgic longing for a leisurely afternoon ritual that no longer pertains to modern life, even in England.  (James Norwood Pratt’s A Tea Lover's Treasury is a notable exception.)  This is one reason why discovering The Time of Tea was such a pleasure.  First published in Paris, the book is actually a pair of volumes:   one of photographs of the tea ritual in Japan, China, Sikkim, France, amongst the Tuaregs in the Sahara, and yes, in England; and the other of short, provocative “thoughts” about the true nature of tea and the places it comes from.

As authors Bruno Suet and Dominique Pasqualini see it, the story of tea in the West is inextricably bound up with colonialism and the exploitation of the East.  (The black China teas we drink are said to have been invented by a merchant who smoked rotting leaves to sell to foreigners.)  This political interpretation may not go down well with your Earl Grey, but the book can be read simply for its wealth of information about this ancient beverage.  For instance, there is the tale of the “legendary Wulong tea, 'Red Robe',"  the product of  “a few centenarian tea plants” grown in a secret mountain location in China.  In 1998 in Fujian province, one kilo was auctioned for $900,000.  We always knew we weren’t getting the best.   To order the book, contact, which also sells superb teas.  (See Best of Class #58.)

The Great One (of Food)
Craig Claiborne, the great New York Times food critic and its only substantial cookbook writer, died recently at 79.  The obituary in the Times, while amusing, missed the essence of Claiborne.  Like Wayne Gretzky, who forever changed the game of hockey, he was in a league of his own.  Pre-Claiborne, food in America was pedestrian.  After Craig (ACC), we began to eat.  He put dining on a new course.  And, arguably, he is the most important journalist the Times spawned, at least from the 1960s forward.  All the rest have mixed records.   Today, of course, there simply are no titans at the Times, though there are a few middling journalists of quality.  Below are a few of his titles (all of which are worthwhile), including his last:

Best Barbecue and Grilling Book
You'll have to do a search through,, or your rare book dealer.  But this is a gem.  Beinhorn's Mesquite Cookery (Texas Monthly Press, 1986).  Every recipe is tested, mostly in Connecticut.  I know because it was my weekend fare for about 30 weeks.  Designed by Mike Hicks of Hixo, certainly Austin's most original designer.



Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Andrea Wulf, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens

Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind

Imagine: How Creativity Works - Jonah Lehrer

Oliver Sacks - Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain 2007

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman – 2006

Deborah Heiligman - Charles and Emma – 2009

From a review of Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma we learn that “In today’s climate of division between religion and science, it’s instructive to read about a marriage in which the two cultures improved each for exposure to the other.”  Emma’s strong religious belief and his devotion to science happily co-existed under the umbrella of their marriage. Modern life, from the Renaissance forward, has presented us with a choice between lots of contradictory notions. The happy man must live with the ambiguity, enthusiastically giving some credence to opposed ideas. (11-10-10)

Terrorism and Science
A step at a time, we are fashioning analytical tools that will help us identify and control terrorist networks.  We have previously discussed “Syndromic Surveillance Networks” which show promise in dealing with everything from pollution to terrorists.  As well, “honeypot” theory, out of Israel, devised to deal with computer viruses, may be deployed against a variety of other threats.  We have, in fact, a greater need to look at Israeli thinking, particularly as relates to skyjacking, since that nation has been dealing with hit and run tactics since its founding. 

Now quantitative analysis (“Science Journal,” Wall Street Journal, Februrary 17, 2006, p. B1) may be able to look into “terrorism cycles.”  “One promising technique, called spectral analysis, is typically applied to cyclical events such as sunspots.  A new application of it is … [for] terrorism, which, data show, waxes and wanes in regular, wavelike cycles.”  Analysis also reveals that efforts to shore up defenses against one kind of threat merely deflects terrorists into other activities.  “The only way of thwart this substitution effect is to disrupt terrorists’ funding and recruitment.  Professors Todd Sandler and Walter Enders have looked at some of these patterns in The Political Economy of Terrorism.  (5/31/06)

Dousing TVs
For those of you who go to restaurants that have a TV going in the corner or go in an airline club to find a gigantic tube pouring sound into the lounge, help is on the way.  For $14.95, you can buy TV-B-Gone, the fast selling gadget devised by Mitch Altman, inventor years ago of simulation games and training software for the military.  This is a keychain device which will generally shut down the TVs one encounters in public spaces, with nobody the wiser.  It really amounts to a universal remote.  Clearly Orwell never dreamed, when he wrote 1984, that citizens could ever be able shut down the useless messages spewed from the maw of media empires.  Orwell’s Big Brother reaches you wherever you go.

Nobel Feynman
Now for a funny guy.  We all have to regret that we, or most of us, never met Richard Feynman.  He was a consummately brilliant physicist prankster wag who, for instance, entitled a talk about nanotechnology, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (  Countrymen, we ask you, are you going to read about “plenty of room at the bottom” or would you prefer to wade through thick esoteric stuff called “nanotechnology”?  You can learn about his last prank on the Global Province at “Feyman’s Last Caper.”  We even took place in this last boondoggle.  Feynman, incidentally, won the Nobel Prize in 1965, and he solved the riddle of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  You will love his books, including Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Fenyman.  His daughter, Michelle Feynman, is out with a volume of his letters called Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.  That title is perfectly descriptive of the amazing Feynman.

Tilting at Windmills
A couple of young saber wielders (Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus) have rattled the chieftains of the environmental community because they gave a speech at Middlebury College—much overstated—entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.”   Accredited environmentalists like to write a lot, so you can find all sorts of moanings and groanings about this speech on the Internet.  The speech itself is a bit turgid, but read it if you must, by going to, where you will find a link to it.   

Of course, the title is a bit silly, since the movement is very far from dead, even if the current New Mobile classes do not care for trees and all the other kinds of things we associate with “environment.”  Environmentalism is out of step and needs to be brought up to date.  The two authors rant about American values and the need for the marginalized environmental movement to connect up with them.  We suspect that the kinds of things environmentalists need to do to regain their perch are a little less lofty.   

You will remember that a historian, a few years back, entitled his book The End of History and the Last Man in order to get a little attention.  Last we looked, history is still with us.  Likewise, we’re still encountering greens everywhere we go, and we see recyclying baskets in front of very Republican houses in fancy subdivisions every week.  This movement is far from dead. 

That it needs a shake up is self evident, even to the more thoughtful leaders trashed by the kids in their speechmaking.  For more on the quest for renewal, read “Turkey Restoration: Green Renewal.”  To get real traction, the Greens will have to figure out how to cut a global swathe in the future, acting them much less like a series of national movements.  That is, they will have to catch up with history, which has become so global that it would give the dialectical German philosopher Hegel infinite pleasure.  The Greens need to clarify their agenda and to clean up their tactics. 

One insight of the authors is well worth repeating.  American support for the environmental movement is very broad, but very shallow.  The passion for it is only “skin deep,” and is easily displaced by other concerns.  In an age of downsizing, where many are just trying to survive and get by, causes that are just perceived as nice-to-do get put on the back burner.  Similarly, public broadcasting has lost a lot of its committed support, even though it still owns a wide franchise throughout the country. 

Part of the deterioration arises from division within the ranks of environmentalists because enthusiasts will only fight for one narrow goal rather than the broad idea of environmental preservation.  In this vein, read Bill Mckibben, now a visiting scholar at Middlebury College and author of “Tilting at Windmills,” New York Times, February 16, 2005, p. A27.  Windmills for energy, which have taken hold more in Europe than America, are now spreading faster in the United States, notably in New Mexico where the Governor is touting the state as the home of alternate energy.  In the East, the Greens and the well heeled are resisting the spread of windmill farms off of Cape Cod, in the Adirondacks, and in other places.  Because of global warming, McKibben welcomes them as a way to stave off the burning of more fossil fuels.  This is just one of many splits in environmental thinking: it’s hard for America to get behind such a fuzzy, conflicting agenda. 

In spite of themselves, the Greens are just beginning to receive help from an independent cultural trend that is picking up momentum.  There’s now a move towards less consumption, a simpler life, and more contemplative activities.  See our “The Post Consumptive Society.”  (3/30/05)

The Forgetting—Alzheimer’s
Read transcripts from an online chat with The Forgetting author David Shenk, etc.  This is a PBS production with links to other resources.  See  The show itself is a comprehensive guide to “the forgetting” disease for the layman.  We find the update of news clips on Alzheimer’s quite useful.  We also compliment Twin Cities Public TV for including actual transcripts instead of the meager audio clips put out my less generous stations.

L. R. Fortney’s Visual Garden
We gather L. R. Fortney was a Duke University physics teacher in the late 1990s.  But we like what he did out of school.  His Visual Garden site will overwhelm you: it is saturated with beautiful shots of flowers to include many varieties of clematis and iris.  But you are also well served to follow him on his travels and fishing trips which you can find on his homepage.  If we understand correctly, he is author of a textbook, Principles of Electronics: Analog and Digital.  Sadly we learn on the same site that the Big C got him, and you will find some detailed commentary about his prostate cancer: 

On March 7, 1999, Lloyd Fortney died.  He had noticed bruising the week before, and it was determined that he had Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC) caused by the metastatic cancer.  He was hospitalized on March 3 and treated for DIC, but the treatment was not effective.  His health declined rapidly in the two days before he died; a brain hemorrhage was the final cause of death.  (11/16/05)

Janet Frame
It is not only neurologists and scientists who are helped by putting pen to paper.  Janet Frame, of New Zealand, just died on January 29, 2004, after a trying lifetime of mental illness.  Institutionalized at 21 and subject to all the dreadful treatments such as electro-shock that have been attempted with very troubled patients, she was only saved from lobotomy because her fine writing surfaced and her surgeon was moved to let well enough alone.  Later she was to write Faces in the Water, clearly an autobiographical novel, at the urging of a London psychiatrist.  Fortunately, her writing not only saved her from the knife, but it was also therapeutic in a way that neither analysis nor drugs could ever be.  We probably never will fully understand why soulful expression plays such a part in the relief of all sorts of illness, mental and otherwise.  But there are plenty of Frames around to prove that it works.  See The Economist, February 14, 2004, p. 81.

A Site for Sore Eyes
We can think of a number of reasons for visiting the website of Oliver Sacks.  See  As a neurologist, he has dealt with a host of brain diseases firsthand, and here you will find an extensive bibliography, audios, etc. that will lead you through an extensive literature on the afflictions he has treated.  As well, this is just about as good a website as you find for any author:  It not only has plentiful detail, but it is beautifully designed, right down to the typefaces.   Such aesthetic care is almost universally lacking in all the sites we encounter, even those with heavy financial backing.  Only the homepage, which is pretty but not intuitive, is awkward, but once you get past it, the site is a thing of beauty.  This is all to say that Sacks clearly understands the link between science and art.   

We are learning in all fields, from business to medicine, that understanding flows not only from quantitative data but from narratives that capture every stray fact.  Stories or histories will tell us as much or more than bits of data.  Again and again, it seems, those lucky enough to be fine writers often make better investigators than their colleagues.  Sacks can look at neurons, but he also tells the story of patients that may reveal aspects of how a disease works.  As well, he probes his own history to understand memory and other aspects of the psyche.  Interestingly, his autobiographical Uncle Tungsten in draft apparently ran to some 2,000,000 words, as he dredged up every fleeting memory, although he only used 5 or 10% of all this material in the published edition.  Even books about fern collecting expeditions, such as his Oaxaca Journal, occasionally delve back into his childhood, which is never far from his mind.

Adam Zerman’s Consciousness:  A User’s Guide has now been brought out by Yale University Press.  Zerman, a neurologist at the University of Edinborough, writes now and again for the London Times and, according to reviewer William Galvin—who himself has written a book or two such, as A Brain for All Seasons —“his treatment of the disorders of knowledge is superb.”  (See New York Times Book Review, September 28, 2003, p. 24.)  Galvin notes that the brain, or consciousness if you like, instinctively runs ahead of the evidence, searching and finding meanings (quite often wrong) in the fragmented perceptions offered for its inspection.  “We are always seeking after meaning.”  Galvin also thinks two other works, Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens, also are quite enlightening about aspects of consciousness.

By the way, do take a peek at Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a much more important book for our times than his renowned The Tipping Point.  In effect, he celebrates one form of intuition in the new book, something much needed for us to overcome our inertial mental estate.  Gladwell is turning into a sort of pop epistemologist.  Of course, in their debate together, Levitt clearly stared him down.  Probably the only way out of our current economic quandary is a rampage of innovation which will take a whole lot of “blink” as well as other types of intuitive activity leading to counter-intuitive observations with a Levittine flavor.  (See 

Dire Straits
Dire Straits has long been one of our favorite pop musical groups.  Its name captures perfectly the present mood in our land.  Bad news about war, pestilence, floods, and economic hardship have shell-shocked Americans and brought insecurity into every home.  The New York Times Book Review of May 18 flags for us Our Final Hour, a book by British scientist Martin Rees that says, according to the Times, that “the world has a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century.”  Denise Rich, who had an inglorious moment in the sun during the Clinton administration, reportedly feels compelled these days to take her yoga guru along on vacation in order to ward off the ills of the world.  And Andrew Weill, the healing doctor, prescribes newsless days to help you screen out negative thoughts.  During a vacation at one of the old Adirondack camps of yesteryear, we ourselves noticed that everyone in our party put aside TV and newspapers to shut out the pain of the world.

But this is only to say that good news has been elbowed aside by media that tends to thrive on negatives.  There are plenty of changes afoot that are quite promising.

Nature’s Plough
If you are reading the newspapers too much during these dog days of August, you will learn that a whole covey of our politicians are making silly asses of themselves over so-called “intelligent design,” hoping, for no good reason, to set aside 150 years of evolutionary thought and lay waste to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.  Frankly, we are rather hoping that you are neither paying attention to them nor to evolution.  After his initial work on all species, Darwin settled down to earthworms about whom he told all in an elegant little monograph called Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881).  This down-to-earth treatise is a much more comforting work, calming amidst both the 90-plus-degree days we are having and the onslaught of world news that shows us to be going sideways rather than forward, as all hints of  both design and evolution are shunted aside by societal chaos. 

It is not until you read Darwin that you realize just how august a spirit lurks in the lowly, subterranean worm: 

The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be ploughed by earth-worms.  It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures. 

As we mentioned in “And the Earth Moved,” earthworms, which can number in the thousands and hundreds of thousands per acre, work their way through tons of earth over the course of a year, leaving your backyard richer and ready to host the new varietals you choose to set in the ground. 

The Emperor of Scent
Bjorn Lomborg, professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, has been reviled the world over by scientists in ad hominem attacks for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which contends that the environment is not half as bad off as the high priests of science would have us believe (See “Bjorn the Pincushion,” Big Ideas #103).  Luca Turin, now chief scientist at a Virginia company called Flexitral (, has come up with a unified theory of smell that threatens to turn the perfume and flavoring industries on their ears.  His struggles to put his ideas across are chronicled in a new book called The Emperor of Scent.  Dr. Atkins, author of the diet that businessmen most like, has been steadily attacked by the heart and nutritionist establishment for his diet theories, yet he is now coming into the mainstream as we learn that bread and carbohydrates have a lot more to do with our obesity epidemic that we previously understood (see  Letters from the Global Province, 8 July 2002, “Red-Blooded Americans Again?” ).  Pushing unpopular theories gives their proponents a sense of divine purpose, and it is, by the way, the only way we can get rid of the intellectual baggage of the past that is now weighing us down.  

Though his teachings about agriculture probably have affected only 1% of Japan’s farms, Masanobu Fukuoka, who started as scientist but has given his life over to alternative farming, is probably as good a preacher as the world knows about the spiritual and infrastructure aspects of gardening/farming.  Above all, his system has been a spiritual mandate that teaches “the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings” (from One Straw Revolution: The Natural Way of Farming [1978]).  According to “Alternative Agriculture in Thailand and Japan” ( 

Following a philosophy of “do nothing farming” Mr. Masanobu Fukuoka first began natural farming in 1938, in Japan his homeland.  He was educated as a microbiologist and soil scientist but gave up his career to practice simple agriculture as a spiritual undertaking. 

… The practice of Fukuoka farming is based around the concept of minimal interference with nature, namely no ploughing, no weeding, no chemical pesticides, no chemical fertilizers and no pruning.  He also pioneered the use of ‘seed balls’ which consist of the seeds of many different crop species being combined into a clay mixture and formed into a small ball.  These are then scattered over the farm creating many different micro-ecosystems.  

In general Fukuoka and other alternative farming leaders believe conventional farming techniques, to include the standard array of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, have severely depleted soils throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and other developed societies.  In this context, the gardener today stands on dying land that needs to be brought back to life. 

The Flexible Brain
We used to think that specific parts of the brain controlled very specific human functions.  If a part went, then the function was no more:  if the speech area was damaged, speech ceased.  But we are now learning that the brain can adapt and rewire itself to accommodate functions in new sections of the brain when old ones give out.  This has led to new therapies for everything from stroke to dyslexia.  See the Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2002, pp. B1 and B4.  Also consult Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s and Sharon Begley’s forthcoming book, The Mind and the Brain:  Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, which was the source of their WSJ article on this topic.

Cybernetics & Society
The world of broken systems is also a world of broken communication where citizens will have to be ingenious beyond belief to fight entropy. Broken systems turn ordinary citizens into guerilla fighters. As Norbert Weiner would have said, entropy “subverts the exchange of messages.” So you'll just have to learn to beat on your tom-tom.

Bjorn the Pincushion
Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark's University of Aarhus has been attacked by every politically correct scientist around the world.  Author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, he says that many of the alarmist scientific claims put out by Green enthusiasts around the world just don't hold water.  Some of us know that many of the Green arguments -- such as the supposed relationship between pollution and global warming -- are not very airtight, and so deserve a lot of scrutiny.  But the main importance of Lomborg is that he symbolizes the breakdown of academic discourse.  Even Nobel Prize winners have attacked his arguments with epithets instead of evidence.  Strangely, he should become a martyr in the perpetual battle for academic freedom -- a principle cast aside by lazy scholars and scientists.  For more on this see The Economist, February 2, 2002, pp. 75-76.  See also and and Scientific American have devoted a host of pages to his attackers.  Also see Grist (  Also, look around; Grist has lots of incidental jabs at Lomborg that will equip you to dismiss him out of hand, if that's what you want to do.

The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists
"John Nash ... a Nobel laureate in economic science in 1994, had a habit of leaving a 'negative tip' for bad service; he would pocket the gratuity left by fellow diners."   Taken from a book review of Jeremy Bernstein's The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists.  See New York Times Book Review, April 22, 2001, p. 28.

Tiny Is Big
Nanotechnology.  This means maneuvering things atom by atom to achieve unusual things.  See “Downsizing,” by Nicholas Thompson, The Washington Monthly,   October l7, 2000.  Apparently Eric Drexler first laid out the potential of the micro/micro/micro world for the layman in his book Engines of Creation.  Although Thompson warns us on the perils inherent in this field, suggesting that there is a need for thoughtful regulation, clearly the economic potential is as big as he implies.  We are about to see a host of new materials with amazing properties and potential.  See “It’s A Nano World," Business Week, November 27, 2000, pp. 76-82.   Material Science, it seems, is about to have its Golden Age.  Incidentally, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. 

Do You Know What Drop-‘n-Drag Is?
You think it is something to do with the computer, and you are right.   But it is also a “military term for ordering a soldier to do push ups in a woman’s clothing.”  Or that’s the definition in The GIGAWIT Dictionary of the E-nglish Language, a reworking of all the terms geeks use on the Internet.  It is written by the immensely funny Tony Hendra, who has simultaneously started a Web publishing firm at

Time Out
Gerald Withrow, a mathematician, philosopher about time, and author of The Nature of Time and Time in History, died June 2 at 87.  See "Gerald J. Withrow, 87, Author of Philosophic Tomes on Time," New York Times, June 27, 2000, p. 23:

"He was fond of telling a story about the Russian poet Samuel Marshak visiting London before 1914.  His English was imperfect, and he asked a man in the street, 'Please, what is time?'

The passer-by answered: 'That's a big question.  Why ask me?'"

1000 Words on Mars
"One famous astronomer of the day is said to have received a message from William Randolph Hearst: 'Is there life on Mars?  Please cable one thousand words.'  The astronomer's reply to the publisher was 'Nobody Knows'--repeated five hundred times."  From The Mapmakers, by John Noble Wilford, Vintage, 1982.

Alien Technology
Thinking men in all walks of life are trembling about the technology in our midst: Jeremy Rifkin about biotechnology (see Scientific American's profile; his books The Biotech Century, and The End of Work; and the Biotech Century website) Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems about the computer, Steven Talbott about all of it (see his website and our Best of Class item on his newsletter).  Just like all the atomic scientists who bonded together against military uses of the atom, they show how familiarity with technology has bred fear, contempt, and loathing.  Technologists all, they sense how we are becoming slaves, not masters, of technology. 

But it takes an artist, not a techie, to paint the outlines of what's next:   Godfrey Reggio, former monk and now bleeding edge filmmaker (see Ty Burr's article "'Qatsi,' Part III: Technology Triumphs," The New York Times, March 19, 2000, Arts & Leisure, p.13).  He says:

"More important than empires and wars and other is now an environment, the host of human habitation.  We don't live with the natural environment.  There's so much interest in aliens because we are the aliens.   We are off-planet."

Murphy's Law by Perrow
This is a big idea if not terribly original.  Charles Perrow, in his 1984 book, Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies, re-issued by Princeton University Press, essentially says that when systems interact, funny, unpredictable things happen.  On a good day, the proximity of several very complex systems leads to disasters.  As a friend of mine once said to a lady at a party, having sprayed her with champagne, "That kind of equine elimination is just gonna happen."   What's interesting about this is that we are taking away much of the flexibility, and many of the redundancies in many systems that prevent "normal accidents."   See Lawrence Zuckerman, "Is Complexity Interlinked with Disaster?: Ask on January 1" The New York Times, December 11, 1999, p. A26.

Best Primer for Budding Scientists
If you have had a chance to look at science textbooks for primary school children or adolescents, you know they don’t work.  In fact, they turn kids off, discouraging their natural curiosity and nipping our future scientists in the bud.  But take a look at Marshall Brain’s “How Stuff Works” (see  Brain used to teach in the Computer Science Department at North Carolina State University.  But this evocation got the best of him, and now he is explaining everything--from “How car engines work” to “How Christmas works.”   We like the fact that his top ten articles include “How toilets work.”  Brain has also written a fair number of books in this vein:

Best Introduction to the World of Websites
You may want to get hard copies of Philip Greenspun's books, or you may just want to work your way through his website at  One book is Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing.  Greenspun is a rebel with a brain, providing endless insights about the rights and wrongs of websites, and particularly why so many are wrong.  See

How Big Ideas Seize the Stage
My friend Howard Austin put me onto Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France.  With Malcolm Gladwell (see our item in Big Ideas) we explored how fads become faddish -- turning into this season's hit on Broadway or 7th Avenue.  Latour deals with a wider landscape -- how the big ideas become the stuff of everyman's life.  In this book we see how Pasteur's talent and ideas joined with the social mosaic of his century to infiltrate lives throughout the Western World.  Since we need more titanic innovations in business, church, and especially government, it is to Latour and company to whom we must look for a perspective on how to get big things done.   Other Latour books are:



Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus  - Higher Education? – 2010 (09-29-10)

Ha’vard Doesn’t Have It
The Yale Wits ran circles around the boobs from Harvard University at the November 20, 2004 Yale-Harvard game.  Disguised as the “Harvard Pep Squad,” complete with red-painted faces and fake Harvard IDs, Yale students passed out cards for credulous Crimson fans to hold up at a predetermined moment.  The cards spelled out—“We Suck.”  (See Yale Alumni Magazine, January 2005, p. 15 and  That Harvard won the game was only an anticlimax, and it barely helped it to save face.  To read about this in much more delicious detail that includes word on other pranks, see The Yale Daily News at  MIT pranksters, engineers all, had gotten Harvard students to hold up placards saying “MIT” at the 1982 Yale-Harvard game.  The great tech schools, MIT and Cal-Tech, have a noble tradition of dreaming up complex pranks, though they tend to be less theatrical in their execution.  You can find some of them at “Hijinks at Cal-Tech.”  We would also suggest a look at T. F Peterson’s book Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT.

The Giant of Liberal Education
Yale's last great president was A. Whitney Griswold (1906-1963), an English professor turned historian.  He doubled Yale's endowment and added twenty-six new buildings.  Yale, like Harvard, was just another English knock-off until he started his building program, using all the greats, such as Kahn, Rudolph, etc.  We suspect he believed that architecture itself mattered in a proper education.  He wrote widely on foreign policy and education, our own favorite being Liberal Education and the Democratic Ideal.

During his tenure, at least, Yale still believed in teaching, and an undergraduate would learn at the feet of real masters.  This was different from most other brandname schools where professors were off doing research, knowing that not to publish would mean they would perish.  Yale in the 1950s was an exciting place to see and to learn, and it was the moment when the university had its most profound impact on the nation.

Griswold worked the business end of things in the mornings, thought and researched in the afternoons, and seemed to raise money and give good dinners in the evenings.  All in all, he turned out to be terribly quotable--more than we even knew.  Memorable examples include: "Books won't stay banned.   They won't burn.  Ideas won't go to jail."  Or, "We ... spend so much time justifying what we are doing that we don't have time to do what we are justifying."

When told of student shenanigans occassioned by candidate Adlai Stevenson speaking at Yale, he called his undergraduates a bunch of bores and a few other choice things.  That was a time when free speech was the right of any worthy individual whatever political stripe.  Ungentlemanly conduct was simply dé classé.

Writing Teacher
We first visited with Bill Zinsser in the 1970s.  This was long after his days on New York’s Herald Tribune, the spritely paper that once entertained and informed Gothamites—an example today’s New York Times would do well to emulate (  He had come back to town from a teaching stint in New Haven, where he was also Master of Branford College, re-launching himself as an editor for Book of the Month Club.  We lured him to the Algonquin for lunch, knowing it might please him, since that hotel dining room had been the setting for many a liquid lunch of the writing greats (a.k.a. The Round Table) from The New Yorker when that magazine was at the top of its form. We ate modestly, had one aperitif, but talked long. 

Since then we have been through a score of his books, including Mitchell and Ruff, his account of jazz musicians re-opening up China, American Places (good for the summertime vacation traveler), and On Writing Well, his simple and comfortable essay on how to get one’s writing in shape.  A fine writer, he’s probably a better teacher.  Certainly his is the only text on writing that we could ever endure, since most are didactic, complex, and put together like manuals from the Department of Motor Vehicles.  He’s got other writing books you should pay attention to, instructing us on how to frame a memoir, do a biography, or write on the computer (see How to Write a Memoir, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Extraordinary Lives, Writing with a Word Processor, etc.).  For some Zinsser aphorisms on writing see the very eclectic Dey Alexander at (Oddly enough, Dey Alexander’s a “usability specialist” at Australia’s Monash University whose main job is complexly lecturing the rest of us on how to write simply for the Internet). We are so fond of Zinsser’s writing that we even had him compose an essay for us on the beauty of a finely wrought book (see   

When we wrote about his On Writing Well in Best of Class, we remembered a key lesson he taught us.  If you want to teach yourself or anybody else to write, one good trick is to try to write clear directions: on how something works, on how to get somewhere, on the many cautions involved in a good recipe.  It’s hard to put things in the right order, and it’s a miracle if you don’t leave out a key detail.  So a well-constructed how-to perfects one’s writing. 

Now in his eighties, he’s still at it, teaching at the New School in New York and authoring his own autobiography, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, which, true to form, is laden with more advice on doing memoirs.  Mr. Zinsser tells us it is now out in paperback. (See  From Yale to Columbia to the New School, a very little college that speaks better than the other two leviathans to urban concerns and street-smarts creativity.   

After you have read and discussed Zinsser, there is really nothing more to say about writing. There you have it.  Why it’s important?  How to do it beautifully?  Need we say more? Unfortunately we lack his gift for spareness, so we will ramble on. 

Why Johnny Can’t Write
We have never been concerned about Why Johnny Can't Read.  (See Rudolph Flesch at  Sooner or later he learns to read—through comic books or Harry Potter or something like that.  But even when he has become a John instead of a Johnny, perhaps as a freshman at college, he often does not master writing.  Johnny has a right to be depressed, because, unlike Art Buchwald, he has gotten a lousy education.  He can’t add and he can’t write.  Even college does not help.  With grade inflation, students often get through freshman writing courses safely insulated from sentence structure and commonsense.

Neil Milton Postman
On October 5, 2003, Neil Postman passed away before his work was done, taken by lung cancer.  He was the best thing that ever happened to New York University, and, despite a thoughtful obituary in the New York Times by Wolfgang Saxon, it’s clear that neither the mourning nor the monuments did justice to the man.  He was a most prolific writer about culture, education, and technology, the leader of a field he called “media ecology.” 

Early on, in 1961, he came out with Television and the Teaching of English, then launched a fusillade of articles and books that culminated in 1985 with Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, certainly his most popular work.  It inspired Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to devise an album called Amused to Death.  In general he theorized that our pervasive media, particularly TV, had gutted our culture.  We think one could argue as well that it has wounded our democracy.  Postman understand above all that only the printed word could express complex thoughts, a task beyond the power of TV and other multimedia.  Who would better understand the pitfalls of broadcasting’s effulgences than this consummate New Yorker? 

This good fellow had a tremendous personal impact on a host of people, starting with his family.  One need only read son Andrew Postman’s eulogy to and for his father given in Queens, October 8, 2003:  “My father had greatness, and I don’t know of anyone who was more widely admired.  But even better, my father had goodness, and I don’t know of anyone who was more genuinely loved.”  

Peter Kindlmann, an electrical design professor at Yale of breadth and depth, also cherishes Postman and has read widely in his works.  In talking about how student grading is a relatively new invention and a mixed blessing hatched up by one William Farish in 1792, he recalls none other than Postman, who wrote about the subject in Technopoly.  Both Postman and Kindlmann find it peculiar, and occasionally harmful, that we have attempted to assign quantitative grades to qualitative matters.  Something is lost in this equation. 

Unfortunately we never met the man.  We suspect that we ambled past him on one of our jogs around Washington Square, the only common for campusless NYU.  But he had the bad grace to die before we could bump into him. 

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future.  It was near the end of his game (1999), however, that Postman delivered the volume that interests us most.  If we are going to step back, why stop with the nineteenth century?  We can really go somewhere if we travel back to the eighteenth: 

What I am driving at is that in order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century, we will have to take into it some good ideas.  And in order to do that, we need to look back to take stock of the good ideas available to us.  I am suspicious of people who want us to be forward- looking….  If looking ahead means anything, it must mean finding in our past useful and humane ideas with which to fill our future.

With this in mind, I suggest that we turn our attention to the eighteenth century.  It is there, I think, that we may find ideas that offer a humane direction to the future…. 

His is an argument for history in these a-historical times, when we rarely remember the lessons of yesterday, much less the eighteenth century.  Certainly we have tinkered with the clock for less important reasons.  Every year we drift into Daylight Savings Time so that some mythical farmer will have an hour more of brightness to do his work, cheating the rest of us out of an hour in the evening.  Let’s save something worth saving—that century of independent thinking that gave birth to our country.

Living with Imperfection
Neil Postman suggests we regard education as a cure for stupidity, not a process for developing intelligence. After all, he says, "Doctors do not concern themselves with health, and give all their attention to relieving us of sickness....  Lawyers do not trouble themselves with justice or good citizenship...Doctors and lawyers, in other words, are painkillers." (see Neil Postman, "The Educationist as Painkiller," Conscientious Objections, NY: Vintage Books, 1992).  Postman is a truly witty, convincing writer about the incompatibility of education and technology--in particular, education and TV.  He writes wonderfully about the dumbing-down abilities of TV.  And now, of course, we are in the Internet Age where we will become interactively mediocre.   For more of Postman's social commentary, see:

Harry Potter Beats Teachers
Out of England comes the very best-selling Harry Potter, with four volumes so far--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Passionately read by youngsters and found in the briefcases of businessmen in the first class cabins of airplanes, Harry Potter speaks to how a lad can overcome the terrors and confusions of a mythic world (which is just a metaphor for the tensions, anxieties, and anti-child strains of our developed world at the millennium).  J. K. Rowling, the author, who has emerged from down-and-out times with the revenues from these books, says that she has written here the kind of book she would like to have read at age 10.  Several schools have banned the books on the grounds that they encourage a belief in witchcraft.  But children, in the hundreds of thousands, read on--in literate revolt against some schools and adults whose teachings are not answering their educational or emotional needs. 



Charles King - Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul (03-18-15)

Catherine Legrand - Indigo: The Color That Changed the World

Donald Keene, Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan

Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken

Victoria Schofield, Witness to

Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience

Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

Robert Hughes - Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History (12-07-11)

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris - David McCullough – 2011 (10-26-11)

Founding Gardeners, Andrea Wulf (06-22-11)

Jack Weatherford - Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World - 2005 (06-02-10)

Simon Winchester – The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom – 2008  (04-21-10)

Neil Postman – Building a Bridge to the 18th Century 2000 (06-13-12)

Frederick Jackson Turner – The Significance of the Frontier in American History – 1920

What Is Mexico?  
First of all, it is terribly fascinating and utterly strategic to the United States, more interesting than our very respectable, wonderful neighbor to the north.  Its formal designation is Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States).  It is the world’s largest nation of Spanish speakers.  It is the 12th-largest economy in the world, and it has often had a very high growth rate, but not high enough to support its burgeoning population.  Importantly, as one can discover in FSC Northrop’s Meeting of East and West, the Mexican Roman Catholic Church is a different kind of faith, very grounded in the Virgin Mary, hovering close to the earth, perhaps more like some of the pre-Christian religions in Crete.  North America and Europe are very disconnected from Mexican consciousness. 

Mexico is named after its capital city, a metropolis out of control, which exerts too controlling a hand over the affairs of the nation: 

Mexico is named after its capital city, whose name comes from the Aztec city Mexico-Tenochtitlan that preceded it.  The Mexi part of the name is from Mexitli, the war god, whose name was derived from metztli (the moon) and xictli (navel) and thus meant “navel (probably implying ‘child’) of the moon.”  So, Mexico is the home of the people of Mexitli (the Mexicas), co-meaning “place” and ca meaning “people” (Wikipedia).

On a recent flight over Mexico City, we struck a grey-brown haze that stretched as far as the eye could survey.  Below were an endless string of hapless structures, and beside us a noxiousness that would kill us in our seats if it could penetrate through the skin of our airplane.  Surely this place is just west of Dante’s Inferno. The whole country, in fact, has become a pressure cooker, the United States having become a safety valve where it lets off steam and smoke.  Either we will help it safely decompress, or it will explode in our face, Mexitli striking out at us in ways unimagined.

We can recommend to you a review of J.H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World by Imperial historian Niall Ferguson, an Englishman who also hangs his hat in Boston (see the Wall Street Journal, June 3-4, 2006, p. P8).  Here you get a far more cosmic explanation of the historical dilemma of Mexico than we provided in “Lament for Mexico: Destiny Thwarted.”  According to Ferguson, Sir John demonstrates: 

That when independence came to (some of) the North American colonies, it was the reaction of a self-consciously libertarian society of merchants and farmers against an assertion of imperial authority.  When it came to South America a couple of decades later, it was a chaotic response to the sudden vacuum of power that followed Napoleon’s assault on Bourbon authority in 1808. 

Mexico never really has recovered from the circumstances of its founding.  Nor has the U.S. helped it complete its liberation.

For Great National Holidays
We learn from George Washington Parke Curtis that this punch is, in fact, the only way to celebrate great national holidays.  See The Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Benson J. Lossing, ed. (New York, 1859), 129-30: 

On the great national days of the fourth of July and twenty-second of February, the salute from the then head of Market street (Eighth street) announced the opening of the levee. Then was seen the venerable corps of the Cincinnati marching to pay their respects to their president-general, who received them at headquarters and in the uniform of the commander-in-chief....  [Each veteran] gave in no name—he required no ceremony of introduction—but, making his way to the family parlor, opened the general gratulation by the first welcome of Robert Morris. 

A fine volunteer corps, called the light-infantry, from the famed light-infantry of the Revolutionary army, commanded by Lafayette, mounted a guard of honor on the national days.  When it was about to close, the soldiers, headed by their sergeants, marched with trailed arms and noiseless step through the hall to a spot where huge bowls of punch had been prepared for their refreshment, when, after quaffing a deep carouse, with three hearty cheers to the health of the president, they countermarched to the street, the bands struck up the favorite air, “forward” was the word, and the levee was ended.

The Iceman Cometh
This summer, as the thermometer does 100-degree dances here and in Europe, we are reminded of Frederic Tudor, a specialty pioneer who is celebrated in The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle.  Tudor not only fed ice to the locals in New England, but sent it out to the wide, wide world, packed in sawdust, aboard ships that visited many ports of call, to include the Caribbean.  His handiwork made artisan rums just that much better.  He created the ice business and dominated it, having several times skirted bankruptcy until he finally seized success: 

Since his return to Boston in the spring of 1823, his ice business had gone well, expanded, and become organized to the point that by March 1827 he had finished harvesting ice for that season.  His ice trade was two decades old now.  Frederic calculated the total shipments of goods from the port of Boston in 1826-1827 at three thousand tons, of which he had shipped two-thirds.  His strongholds—New Orleans, Charleston, and Havana—took most of that stock.  Competitors, who had sprung up once he had established the trade, shipped to such places as Wilmington, Delaware; Norfolk, Virginia; and Martinique.  One even dared to ship to Charleston; Frederic met him with a price war.

Never Give Up
In the 3-way election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressive Party took a pounding, coming in well-ahead of the moribund Republicans under Taft, but a couple of million votes behind Woodrow Wilson.  We thought he had spent the rest of his life tasting the bitterness of this defeat.  Not so, we learn in Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: as usual, he just took on another humongous challenge.  This marvelously written book captures again his journey on the Amazon, and then down the ‘River of Doubt,’ later also known as Rio Teodoro and, officially, Rio Roosevelt, til then an unknown 1,000 tributary of the Amazon.  Once again, he conquered all in his path: 

On the afternoon of May 19, 1914 … Roosevelt triumphantly entered New York Harbor on the steamship Aidan, all flags flying….  Every watercraft in the harbor that had a whistle blew three long, joyful blasts. 

Roosevelt, laid low, always got up: it is this resilience that still makes him so interesting to us.

American History at Its Best
You do not have to be a liberal to think that Richard Hofstadter of Columbia was a giant who brought American history to life through deft portraits of America’s heroes, be they Calhoun (“the Marx of the Master Class”), Jackson, or whomever.  If you want biography, intellectual history, and inventive insight all rolled into one, go back and get his American Political Tradition.  We say this because David Brown is now out with Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.  Boy, we bet he stayed up nights working out that brilliant title.  It is published by the ponderous University of Chicago.  Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee just did a revisionist appreciation of the biography and of Hofstadter in The Wall Street Journal, May 13-14, 2006, sort of a putdown from Chattanooga.  “… Mr. Brown’s book makes it hard to evade the fact that Hofstadter was a historian who, for all the charm of his work, was nearly always wrong in his most important assertions.”  That is, to say, McClay finds him too hard on the New Right: a careful reading will also show that Hofstadter also had it in for the Old Left.  A reading of his Columbia Commencement Address of 1968 probably demonstrates that he was a shameful middle-of-the-roader, in the end, with no particular liking for extremism run amok from any wing.  (6/28/06)

Empires of the Atlantic World
We can recommend to you a review of J.H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World by Imperial historian Niall Ferguson, an Englishman who also hangs his hat in Boston (see the Wall Street Journal, June 3-4, 2006, p. P8).  Here you get a far more cosmic explanation of the historical dilemma of Mexico than we provided in “Lament for Mexico: Destiny Thwarted.”  According to Ferguson, Sir John demonstrates: 

That when independence came to (some of) the North American colonies, it was the reaction of a self-consciously libertarian society of merchants and farmers against an assertion of imperial authority.  When it came to South America a couple of decades later, it was a chaotic response to the sudden vacuum of power that followed Napoleon’s assault on Bourbon authority in 1808. 

Mexico never really has recovered from the circumstances of its founding.  Nor has the U.S. helped it complete its liberation.

CLR James
We had never heard of CLR James until Cedric the Englishman brought him up in connection with cricket.  James was a Marxist theorist from the West Indies whose fame outside revolutionary circles arises from Beyond a Boundary, his book on cricket, a game perhaps even more fascinating internationally than soccer.  He traces its impact on the development of a united West Indian liberation consciousness, as these islands sought to separate themselves from the British.  In time Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to captain the islands, an honor that had been denied to previous great black players, the whites always having headed up the Windies team.  James gave us the famous expression: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” 

Surely that’s the best and briefest commentary on specialists anywhere.  To know one thing, no matter how well, is not to know very much.  The educated individual capable of playing on global playing fields does not just master a bunch of skills, or accumulate 1,000,000 bits of information.  Of course, he needs all that, but he must be more than the sum of his parts.  He needs a consciousness that is much broader than the playing field, region, nation, or ideology in which he finds himself, so that he does not become its slave.  (5/17/06)

River of Doubt
A new book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey has turned our head.  We had thought that TR, vanquished at the polls by Wilson and Taft in 1912, had slunk off in bitterness, a much shrunken figure for the rest of his life.  Not at all.  He went off on a grand adventure, first for a speaking tour in Brazil, and then a rather perilous 1913-1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition down the River of Doubt in the Amazon.  He chronicled this in Through the Brazilian Wilderness.  At times his survival was in doubt. 

We owe it to ourselves to get a handle on Brazil, which promises to become quite a colossus in the next 20 years.  President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva has surprised everybody by bringing economic stability to the country.  And, internationally, he is proving the most interesting statesman in the world, trying to get fractious leaders talking to one another, since the fallout from their disputes is hurting all of South America.  (5/22/06)

The late historian Stephen Ambrose never knew Thomas A. Canning, but you can bet he wish he did.  On June 7, 1944, Tom and the 413th Anti-Aircraft Battalion landed on Normandy Beach and worked their way through the storied battles of World War II into Germany, right up to the surrender.  Tom did time around the Battle of the Bulge, the very stuff Ambrose wrote about in Band of Brothers.  Perhaps now that they have both gone over to the other side—Tom left us on March 9, 2003—they will meet up somewhere for lunch. 

It got grim along the way.  The Germans did not go down easily.  Inland, Tom writes of “the night of 16th, after one of the hardest days I can remember, we set up as tank destroyers, but by midnight the Germans were about to overrun our position, so we headed north to Monschau in support of the Ninth Division.” 

But, more importantly, Tom was a pal who could have figured in Ambrose’s lesser known, brief, best book: Comrades, Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals.  Here the historian painted all the hues of male friendship, the real theme of all his work.  Kinship was something Tom had, as all his 1,000 friends and extended family would attest.  Tom was a pal.  He will account for at least 2 chapters in the Book of Unsung Heroes, an elegy yet to be written.  He was the real McCoy

Perhaps it was the Irish in him.  The Irish are the best politicians in the world, because they have the gift of friendship, a warmth that can draw them close to any man.  Of course, tragically, they are often, as well, their own worst enemies, as the cumulative violence in Northern Island too amply recites.  But this bile that pits countrymen against each other never took hold of the Canning family.  (4/26/06)

My Dear President
Gerald Gawalt, a curator at the Library of Congress, is out with a charming volume called My Dear President: Letters between Presidents and their Wives.  Clearly a favorite of his is a note from Teddy Roosevelt to his wife, written from the hospital after an assassin put a bullet in him.  Teddy avows it is nothing serious and, never missing a beat, promises to go on with his hell-bent schedule.  Despite the bullet in him, Roosevelt had already given his address in Milwaukee where he said, “I am all right—I am a little sore.  Anybody has a right to be sore with a bullet in him.  You would find that if I was in battle now I would be leading my men just the same.  Just the same way I am going to make this speech.”  Roosevelt had more lives than any of predecessors and all the presidents that followed.  (4/19/06)

Ross Thomas
One member of  the Ross Thomas fan club claims that Mr. Thomas would be chortling at all the goings-on if he were alive today.  The very prolific California novelist apparently got to the essence of corruption, amply foreshadowing our current national predicament.  Another one of those one-of-a-kind talents tucked away in Malibu, he perished of lung cancer, long before he could see the small-town corruption he pictured corrode the national character.  A read of Roger Simon serves as a good introduction to this man of many parts.  For a more sentimental, considered appreciation of Thomas, see Tony Hiss’s “Remembering Ross Thomas,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1996.  An early classic worth a read is The Fools in Town Are on Our Side.  More timely, perhaps, is The Cold War Swap in which an American intelligence agency slides into criminal behavior.  (5/15/06)

Wedding of the Waters
By the way, we find that Peter Bernstein, the wise man of Wall Street and prolific author, usually writes the right book at the right time.  In 1998, he wrote Against the Gods, the story of risk:  that’s when we should have most been paying attention to risk management.  But in 2005, he came out with Wedding of the Waters, a history of the Erie Canal.  This canal transformed our nation in the 19th century, readying our economy for takeoff and preparing us to command the heights throughout the world.  It made New York City dominant in the country, a position it has not completely lost today.  Infrastructure that connected us to the globe was the pre-condition of America’s greatness.  Right now the safest thing is to find the right big infrastructure risks to underwrite.

Souls on Ice and on Fire
Eldredge Cleaver, author of Soul on Ice and Soul on Fire, was clearly a troubled man.  Revolutionary and jailbird, he did prison time, dope, and everything else.  A member of the Black Panthers, he fell out with his comrades, who eventually were content to work on incremental improvements in the Black condition in America.  In time the Panthers disintegrated, pummeled by law enforcement and bad publicity, riven by internal arguments. Cleaver, to the end, stuck to revolution and went his own, very separate way.

From his lips came, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”  While his call for revolution and violence was irrelevant then and irrelevant now, his war cry takes on quite a different meaning today.  One can hold to a world of walls and boundaries as do the consolidators, or work on collaboration and shared interests.  It’s not entirely clear that there’s a middle ground between these two visions of the world.  In our own view, our self interest lies in nakedly pursuing the common interest.  In economic terms, one could say that we can no longer afford the friction costs that arise from unmitigated individualism, so we need a commons where everybody can graze.  As Frost said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down!”

Hotels of the Jazz Age
For the ’20s, all the hotspot cities in America created grand hotels, too grand, that tried to invoke Europe in Florida, New York, and California.  These are commemorated in Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age.  Nobody built more of these than Schultze & Weaver, a socially connected New York architecture firm that put up the Waldorf-Astoria, the Sherry-Netherland, The Pierre, The Breakers, the Los Angeles Biltmore, the Park Lane,  etc.  Moreover, the Wolfsonian in Miami has assembled a collection of the firm’s work, an interesting addition to that institution’s focus on the gilded life and decorative arts.  The public rooms SW created did carry one off to other lands and other eras, an escapism entirely missing from today’s more anonymous convention hotels.  (5/10/06)

Guerilla Warfare
Painfully, the U.S. Army is learning something about guerilla warfare.  Emerging from Vietnam, it blamed our losses there on politicians who did not allow it free rein to bring its full firepower to bear on the North Vietnamese.  But its braver theorists have since realized that it only knew how to fight conventional wars, when anti-guerilla tactics were called for, both in Vietnam and in Iraq.  See “As Iraq War Rages, Army Re-Examines Lessons of Vietnam,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2006, pp. A1 and A13.  Now it learned what the British achieved during their victory over the Communists in Malaysia: massive, conventional forces cannot win.  Their strikes alienate the citizenry who have to be won over and who have to lead the fight against guerillas—if the war is to be won.  And, guerilla forces eventually wear out the resources and willpower of a conventional enemy, given enough time.  The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich and Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl, both authors being Army officers, are slowly changing Army doctrine, equipping it to deal with the wars of attrition where the enemy melts into the crowd.  (4/19/06)

America Déjà Vu
Now we learn that Columbus did not discover America.  We are continuously learning that all the things we invented in the Western World were done in China first.  Our man in Hong Kong, Andrew Tanzer, reviews a fascinating and controversial book that claims that the Chinese uncovered the New World well before Western European explorers thought they were charting a new passage to Asia, going West to go East.  At any rate, it's a good read: 

“Gavin Menzies’ quest began when he stumbled upon some startling 15th-century maps and charts, cartography that he argues conclusively demonstrates that some mariners discovered and mapped the Americas, Australia, Greenland and Antarctica long before the great European explorers arrived.  His answer: “There was only one nation at that time with the material resources, the scientific knowledge, the ships and the seafaring experience to mount such an epic voyage of discovery.  That nation was China.”  So writes the retired British submarine commander and amateur historian in 1421: The Year China Discovered America, William Morrow, 2003 (tellingly entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World in the UK edition). 

Menzies spent 14 years and visited 900 museums around the world in conducting research.  His yarn goes like this: from 1421-23 China conducted global voyages of exploration under the command of the famed Admiral Zheng He, Grand Eunuch in the Court of early-Ming Emperor Zhu Di.  Menzies maintains that the Chinese explored and discovered the Americas 70 years before Columbus; rounded the Cape of Good Hope over 60 years earlier than Dias and da Gama; circumnavigated the globe a century prior to Magellan’s vessel (Magellan himself was butchered by the natives on the Philippine island of Cebu); and explored Australia three centuries before Captain Cook.  Then, in a fit of xenophobia in the mid-15th century, the Chinese court burned all records of these historic expeditions.  Menzies says the legendary European “explorers” all carried maps recreated from Chinese cartography. 

When Menzies sticks to facts the book is fascinating.   The first purpose of Zheng He’s armada was to return tribute-bearing envoys to their homes in Southeast Asia, India and East Africa.  These had visited Beijing for the 1421 inauguration of the exquisite Forbidden City, built by five million laborers at a time when Europe was crude and rather barbaric.  Zheng He could call on treasure ships that were 480 feet long, 180 feet wide, each with the capacity to transport 2,000 tons of cargo (Europe’s best of that era were Venetian galleys: 150 feet long, 20 feet wide, a cargo capacity of 50 tons).  Beside superior naval architecture and the invention of the magnetic compass, Chinese sailors were able to calculate longitude centuries before Europeans; they measured latitude more accurately, possessed superior astro-navigation skills and water-desalinization technology.   The Chinese seafarers even ate and slept better: soybeans were grown on ships to prevent scurvy; otters were trained to catch fish; well-qualified concubines were on board for every pleasure.   

Menzies sees Chinese fingerprints wherever he goes: shipwrecks, artifacts, mysterious stone structures, DNA and linguistic legacies.  He points to evidence such as the early appearance of Asiatic chickens and pigs in Latin America, the introduction of rice to the Americas and the movement of corn from South America to China.   

The trouble with the book is that it reads like a novel.  Most of the evidence is circumstantial; many of the conclusions are highly speculative.  Menzies’ approach reminds one of a journalist who writes his story before commencing reporting.  Yet the book does serve the useful purpose of reminding Westerners of the glory of China’s ancient culture, the tradition of innovation in science and technology—and points to the vast potential of the ingenious Chinese civilization.”

Water: The Universal Solvent
John Augustus Roebling, wire rope manufacturer of Trenton, New Jersey and famous builder of suspension bridges, is surely best known for bringing us the Brooklyn Bridge.  But few know just how intimately his life revolved around water:

“John Roebling was a believer in hydropathy, the therapeutic use of water.  Come headaches, constipation, the ague, he would sit in a scalding-hot tub for hours at a time, then jump out and wrap up in ice-cold, slopping-wet bed sheets and stay that way for another hour or two.  He took Turkish baths, mineral baths.  He drank vile concoctions of raw egg, charcoal, warm water, and turpentine, and there were dozens of people along Canal Street who had seen him come striding through his front gate, cross the canal bridge, and drink water ‘copiously’—gallons it seemed—from the old fountain beside the state prison.  (‘This water I relish much…’ he would write in a notebook.)  ‘A wet bandage around the neck every night, for years, will prevent colds…’ he preached to his family.  ‘A full cold bath every day is indispensable….’”  (See David McCullough, The Great Bridge, pp. 38-39).

What is Destiny? 
We have said that the goal of executive education is to teach future leaders that they and those that they inspire have a Rendezvous with Destiny.   

But what is destiny?  It’s a culmination beyond the ordinary and the pedestrian.  The very concept of destiny argues that there is a god or gods, because it is an outcome and magic event ordained somewhere in the heavens.  Destiny is the handiwork of the gods. 

Several of the more fundamentalist religious sects around the world would say that Western societies have trivialized life, falling totally under the domination of the passions of man, avoiding the dominion of the gods.  If this is true, it presents a monumental problem for countries that are overwhelmingly secular.  Is he who is not pointed at metaphysical truths a slave to mediocrity?  Probably there is no rendezvous with destiny for those whose feet are stuck in mortal clay.  Is this why the postwar generation of leaders in politics and business has never quite achieved greatness?  

We are not saying, of course, that conventional religion lies at the heart of greatness.  Rather we would assert that people of destiny sense that most awesome events in the universe only regard mankind as a footnote.  John Roebling, tireless worker and creator of the Brooklyn Bridge, only allowed himself one diversion--the study of the philosopher Hegel, who had been a mentor in his youth.  We would venture to say that his appreciation of Hegel’s dialectic equipped him to tackle monumental projects about which the rest of us can only dream.  Hegel, incidentally, had encouraged him to come to America.  Some of this unfolds in the historian David McCullough’s best work, The Great Bridge, which depicts the breadth of Roebling’s undertaking.  It remade New York City, just as Tip O’Neill’s Big Dig ( is redoing Boston.  

Curiously enough, Tony Blair of Great Britain and Juichiro Koizumi of Japan, who have shifted government away from faction towards some of the broader concerns of their societies, may have reclaimed that higher ground where destiny can come out of hiding.  Ironically enough, they were perceived as standard political hacks by the pundits when they first came on the scene, all proving we never know who will be destiny’s children.

Rake's Progress
Our acquaintance Eugene Schlanger has forwarded us a few comments on Richard Brookhiser's new book about which he is quite passionate.  We don't know a lot about Brookhiser or Morris, for that matter, but we approve of Gentleman Revolutionaries in any form, especially if they show some dash and love of woman.  After all, one of our favorite movies is one version or another of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  The thing that amazes us about Morris, Franklin, Jefferson, and other Revolutionary figures is that they were effective on so many fronts and had such a range of interests.  Morris lends truth to the adage, "If you want to get something done, give the task to an impossibly busy man." 

We need a few of them to trample on the specialists of our age.

Here is Schlanger's comment:

The size of certain books belies their complexity.  Richard Brookhiser, in his latest slim history of the American revolutionaries, Gentleman Revolutionary:  Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (Free Press 2003), continues his chronicle of the heroes of the colonial and Federal periods.  Demonstrating a breadth of historical and associative learning that one would expect of a senior editor at the National Review and a New York Observer columnist, Brookhiser employs the same analytical technique he first perfected in his history of the elusive George Washington.  However, unlike Brookhiser’s previous subjects—Washington, Hamilton and the Adamses (John through Henry)—Morris is virtually unknown.  Who was this gentleman and revolutionary, and what does the flourish “rake” convey? 

The answer comes quickly and in abundance:  Morris was wealthy, worldly, a lover of many women (including the wives and lovers of others, such as Talleyrand), a linguist, a diplomat, and a successful landowner (of much of the Bronx).  As a businessman, Morris stabilized the finances of the new nation and later recognized the limitless potential of the Erie Canal for the growing nation and his home state and city of New York.  Most impressively, it was his editorial pen that polished the preamble to the Constitution:  “We the People....”  Morris drew the street grid that would become midtown Manhattan and contribute to the city’s commercial success.  He witnessed the American and French Revolutions and the Terror and then watched the first transition of our government from one political party to another in 1800.  Although some of his ideas appear silly, or offensive, to contemporary eyes, Morris never lacked courage and courtesy.  If the character of a nation is the sum of its citizens’ traits, some of our national success and strength must be attributed to this resolute and fair-minded man.  In a time of corporate disgrace, Richard Brookhiser reaffirms our historical good fortune.  One hopes Mr. Brookhiser continues to fill a library shelf with these early American lives.  One is hard-pressed to find a better writer sensitive to our needs and to the role of an historian.

Continental Enterprise
Stephen Ambrose is a wonderful yarn teller and he does a good job of stretching the railroad across the country.  “Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California , was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century.”  So read his Nothing Like It in the World:  The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869.  We also [always?] have one or more of his books going in our household.  The truth is—whether he is writing about railroads barons, Lewis and Clark, or American fighting men in World War II—his subject is always the same:  the sheer endurance of men in unending struggle to get the job done.  In this book you feel you have done some of the work on every mile.  Ambrose has been a wonderfully successful historian, exciting the jealousy of fellow historians, a few of whom have caught him up in a little plagiarism which he has acknowledged and apologized for.  Since he is better at the struggle and process than telling of results or coming to an end, his books don’t rise to profundity:  he is, we repeat, a proud yarn teller.   

That said, we probably would have liked another book that told us more about Lincoln’s involvement with the railroad (somehow we had never known much about this) and some wide-angle thinking about the meaning of the railroad and the Civil War for the economy.  It’s fair to say that the two put together set the U.S. on the path to becoming the world’s largest economy.  The war, the railroad, and their interaction equipped a generation of leaders to deal with truly large-scale national enterprise, the like of which had not been seen before.  Ambrose’s book is wonderful, but it does not equip us to capture the total achievement it represents.

Big and Agile
Our fate in enterprise is to sacrifice both quality and speed as we strive for scale and low cost.  The incredible thing about America’s creation of the transcontinental railroad is that it captured, almost for the first time, gigantic scale mixed with get-it-done agility.  This is well chronicled in Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, which shows how a nation spliced its continent together with swashbuckling finance, daring engineering, singularity of purpose, imported labor, and President Lincoln’s support.  Lincoln, in fact, backed and more or less headed the two great enterprises of the third quarter of the nineteenth century—the Civil War and the Pacific Railroad.  They made the nation, for sure, one nation, and they together created the basis for its vast industrial strength which was the capacity to direct large enterprise.  Quoting the great Western historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, Ambrose captures the global meaning of all this:  it was “the most stupendous work that men had ever conceived, and one of the most far-reaching in its results” (p. 248).  Ambrose would have penned an even stronger book if he had simultaneously discussed the war enterprise and how the two together remade America and the world.  Nonetheless, he clearly understands the contribution that generals and soldiers alike made directly and indirectly to the railroad.  Simultaneously, we had a war that knitted together North and South, and a railroad that bridged East and West.  Remember, too, the part railroads played in the Wars of unification that created one Germany circa 1870.

Best Book About the History of Salt
Obsessive, single-minded histories appear to have captivated the publishing world.  In just the last year we’ve run across Tobacco , The Stone of Heaven:  Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade, and, most notably, Salt: A World History (New York: Walker and Company, 2002).  Mark Kurlansky, who won the James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing for Cod:  A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, demonstrates convincingly that the quest for salt has shaped the political, military and cultural history of the world from the time of the ancient Egyptians to the present day.  Without salt to preserve fish, for instance, the Age of Exploration might never have happened—nor the discovery of America. The defeat of the South in our own Civil War was surely hastened by the Union army’s relentless destruction of salt works.  In France, the hated gabelle, or tax on salt, became a symbol of royal injustice and contributed to the Revolution of 1789.

The great strength of Salt—intensely focused, well-documented research—is also its flaw. The average reader could easily be overwhelmed by the torrent of facts gushing from every page of the book.  And yet, every time we thought we might just give up and take Kurlansky’s word for it, he trots out a tantalizing new bit of information.   We didn’t know, for instance, that the ancient Chinese discovered natural gas when they drilled the first brine wells in Sichuan province in 252 B.C., using elaborately engineered drilling equipment made of hollow bamboo tubes.  Or that Avery Island in Louisiana, where the McIlhenny family still makes Tabasco sauce, is in reality a giant salt dome where a mine produces 19 tons of salt per minute.  Or that a 1305 English recipe used one pound of salt as a preservative for every 10 pounds of butter.   Or (shades of The X-Files) that a salt mine is being prepared in Carlsbad, New Mexico for storage of plutonium-contaminated nuclear waste that will remain toxic for the next 240,000 years. (Salt will supposedly seal and close any fractures in the mine.)  You get the picture: You will never think of salt in a purely culinary fashion again.

Best History of Salt in India
The Great Hedge of India  (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2001) could only have been written by an eccentric Englishman.  Roy Moxham, a former tea planter and gallery owner, now book conservator and author, fits the bill.  In 1995 he was browsing in a Charing Cross Road bookshop when he stumbled upon the memoirs of a nineteenth century British civil servant, Major General Sir W. H. Sleeman KCB.  In a footnote the Major mentioned a 2,300-mile long hedge planted by the East India Company as part of a Customs line stretching across India.  The thorny, 40-foot wide barrier was guarded by 12,000 inspectors whose job it was to collect the British tax on salt.

Of course Moxham had to go to India to find this long-vanished hedge—and he had to keep going back, armed mainly with copies of old maps he acquired from the India Office Library and the Royal Geographic Society, and later with a global positioning satellite navigator which he didn’t completely know how to operate.  He cajoled Indian friends into  accompanying him into crocodile- and bandit-infested territory, where they skirted the occasional armed military conflict and talked with elderly villagers who vaguely remembered the hedge.  Sandwiched in between episodes of his quixotic journey is a well-researched history of the infamous British salt tax and the horrors that were inflicted upon the Indian people in its name.  No wonder that Ghandi first confronted the British in 1930 over the issue of this tax, which had caused hundreds of thousands of Indians to die of salt starvation.  Like so many other relics of the colonial era, its legacy unfortunately lives on.  

Beautiful Jade Is Jaded
A new history of jade, The Stone of Heaven:  Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade, reveals the underside of the jade trade and man's fascination with this beautiful stone in Imperial China and into the present day.  The authors begin "with the 18th-century Chinese emperor Qialong, who was so besotted with jade that he wrote more than 800 (apparently insipid) verses about the stone, many of them carved upon pieces in his collection" (New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 24, 2002).  Sort of reminds you of the "Diamonds are forever" advertisements spun out by the South Africans.

Chinese Discovered America?
John Noble Wilford in the New York Times this week (March 17, 2002, p. 14YNE) offers up a Brit's theory that the Chinese may have discovered the New World before Columbus.  Gavin Menzies, retired Royal Navy submarine commander and navigation expert has put together a somewhat convincing assemblage of maps and conjecture to suggest that Zeng He may have gotten here first.  Menzies has tried to reconstruct Zeng He's long voyage from March 1421 to October 1423 as admiral of a huge fleet.  Naturally the doubters are many, even though Menzies has been given a most respectful hearing in Great Britain.  Wilford, incidentally, is a long-time science writer at the Times as well as author of a history of maps, Mapmakers.

High Song and the Barbarian
In his study, China: A New History, John King Fairbank writes that "A curious anomaly haunts the three centuries of the Song in China.  On the one hand it was a great creative age that put China ahead of the rest of the world....  On the other hand, during just this time of Chinese efflorescence, tribal invaders from inner Asia gradually got military and state control over the Chinese state and public" (p. 88).   Is, may we ask, China ready for its new Song dynasty, and is re-engagement with all the globe through WTO a necessary catalyst?

The Ace Of Spies
A good, easy read for insomniacs is Reilly: Ace of Spies by Robin Bruce Lockhart. Reilly, it suggests, was a swashbuckler, scoundrel, chameleon, big idea man, super charmer, and a man from many nations who was simply the best spy of all time. He saved the Persian oil fields for the British -- leading to today's BP -- sent photographs of the plans of Germany's warships to British pre-World War I intelligence, loved a million women, and made and lost a few fortunes. He had a devil of a run in the first quarter of the 20th century. For those of you who don't like to read, Reilly's adventures were acted out by Sam Neill for Thames Films, in a widely available series. Reilly, anyway, got the scoop and moved mountains.

Essence of Democracy
What a contradiction! Again and again, spies have saved democracy. For sure we don't breed the best war strategists and tacticians the autocrats and dictators nurture people better at war games. Usually, however, we create great supply lines and can prevail with a little luck and a lot of dope gleaned from reading our enemy's mail. In World War II, our penetration of both German and Japanese codes helped us at Midway, Normandy, and several other places. Most recently, Joseph E. Persico's Roosevelt's Secret War FDR and World War II Espionage confirms this view. Once again, we must live with the uncomfortable truth that we need men in the closet to guard the openness of democracy.

Pox Americana
We learn that Elizabeth Anne Fenn, accomplished car mechanic at Clayton's Cross Creek BP and Service Center in Durham, North Carolina has a secret life.  Closeted alone, she has authored the forthcoming Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 and -- worse yet -- has gone into full-time teaching at George Washington University.  Where is her sense of vocation?  See "She Can Fix Your Engine, Too," The New York Times, September 8, 2001, pp. A15-17.

John Adams
"They talk very loudly, very fast, and altogether."   "If they ask a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again--and talk away."  Observed by John Adams in David McCullough's John Adams, p. 25.

The Great Hedge
This is another instance where history has become invisible.  Read Great Hedge of India to learn about the pernicious tax policy of the colonial British in India, which lasted two centuries, until Ghandi's protests secured repeal in 1947.  This was a burdensome salt tax, exploitive of India's huge poor population, and which was enforced by a great hedge and fortresses across India, as significant as the Berlin Wall in its own way.  The only salt tax that was as devastating was imposed by the French Crown on its own population. Apparently this is another British-French distinction the British squeeze others, while the French apparently are a bit more masochistic.

What a horse!  His saga is more than ably recounted in a bestseller, Seabiscuit: The True Story of How Three Men and a Great Racehorse Captivated the World.  Laura Hillenbrand, Kenyon graduate and writer for Equus magazine, spins a devil of a yarn; she's even great when she strays off course, which she tends to do.  She has a website, she is helping Universal make a movie of the book.  Now when was the last time a bestseller was actually worth reading?

Seabiscuit was an Eastern horse that Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, a top trainer, let get away, much to his regret.  In the hands of owner Charles Howard, a Western car magnate, Tom Smith, one fine trainer, and jockeys Red Pollard and George Woolf, he became the bestus horse of the 30s, maybe the best horse ever.

At Pimlico, in 1938, Seabiscuit finally beat War Admiral, then thought to be the best horse going.  This may have been the contest of all time.   All of America, including Franklin Roosevelt, were at their radios focused on the most important event in the nation.  Great sports writer Grantland Rice wrote of the tension: all the spectators were "too full of tension, the type of tension that locks the human throat."  Woolf the jockey, as he pulled away from jockey Charles Woolf, aboard War Admiral, said, "So long, Charley" now a famous line.

Here it was, for sure, that the West finally subdued the Eastern establishment, much before Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan took over the Republican Party.  The East petered out, and the West began.

But it was in 1940 that Seabiscuit actually became a hero.  So lame that he had been put out to pasture, never to return according to the vetenarians (horse doctors aren't much better than human doctors), he recovered to triumph at the Santa Anita Handicap, getting the big victory that had always alluded him.  Half-crippled Red Pollard, the jockey always closest to him, was aboard for the win.

Josiah Royce
The American philosopher Royce had it right.  In looking at gold rush California, he shows how self-interest propels people into community.  And then how a sense of community makes a number of good things happen.  See his California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco (1856).   Collective self-interest eventually gives birth to global altruism, a tendency we now have to graft onto the free-market economics now sweeping the world.

"See the U.S.A. in a ... Hyundai?"
This chart headline appears in Jerry Flint's column in Forbe's magazine, June 11, 2001, p. 84.  In April, the American car industry surrendered to foreign brands, only accounting for 49.4% of U.S. sales.  In twenty-five years, it seems, we have given up 30% of the marketplace.  What was the name of Churchill's book--While England Slept?  Flint can call his "While America Snored."

Meeting of East and West
In 2001, it is Shanghai that is fast becoming the capital of all of Asia. This is not to say that the philosophical story--the intermingling of ideas--that is foreshadowed in F.S.C. Northrop's Meeting of East and West is not just as important. But, like most people on this side of the Pacific, we take on issues piecemeal, never quite managing to capture the whole picture.

Best Flack Job 2001
We don't know who did the publicity work, but they deserve high honors.  Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Lauren Hillenbrand has gotten every review that matters, including high marks from Michiko Kakutani, surely one of the better critics at the Times.  Of course, Seabiscuit was one of the most successful race horses in history and got more coverage in his racing days than several world figures of the late 1930s.  We promise to take a look at the book (see entry 12 above)and will be waiting for a remake of the Seabiscuit story without Shirley Temple.

Treason by the Book
Jonathan Spence's book is about a scholarly revolt against the Manchu dynasty.   Perhaps inherently this historian and storyteller is telling us that revolt in China often comes from unlikely sources.  He may also be telling us that China is always about dynasties--even today, although the Beijing court tries to drape itself in Communist clothing.

Piano Island
When The New York Times is at its best it brings us offbeat cultural stories from around the country and across the globe that enlighten us in ways that its ordinary political and economic coverage never does.  Such was the case with “The Piano Triumphant (With No Bourgeois Taint),” a Friday story that appeared on September 26, 2003.   

Apparently the Yins, a wealthy banking family, arrived in Gulangyu in the 1920s, a one-mile square island that already housed a dozen foreign consulates, all an outgrowth of foreign dominance in China.  With European style architecture, it was a wonderful retreat for the well to do.  Many residents were Christians, and this led to a plentitude of churches, each with a piano, that were soon bursting with music.  This led to a string of musical Yins, to include a baritone who settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Yin Chengdian, a music teacher who founded the Xiamen Music School in the early 1990s, and Yin Chengzong, a terribly talented pianist, born here in 1941. 

Of course, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was devastating for him and the island.  But in 1967, he smartly brought his piano to Tiananmen Square and played revolutionary odes to Mao.  Richard Kraus at the University of Oregon, author of Pianos and Politics in China, calls him a hero who saved the piano from destruction in those atavistic years.  By this and other means, Yin separated himself and the piano from Western culture, saving, if you like, remnants of musical tradition in China.  Later he wrote “Yellow River Concerto,” that became part and parcel of official Maoist China. 

Finally he left for Manhattan, where he lives now, since his ties to Mao and company made him somewhat persona non grata after the death of the dictator.  Currently he is engaged in a concert tour of China as part of an effort to restore the island, which has decayed and lost much of its population.  Up to 200 buildings are to be refurbished.  The government has also opened a piano museum, all part of an effort to make it more tourist- friendly.  We notice that Fujian Province is just across from Taiwan:  Is it not possible that well-heeled Taiwanese may beat a path here as relations continue to build between Taiwan and the mainland?  At least in the Yin’s one square mile, China is about something more than relentless production, as it celebrates its ties to classical music.

Best History Books for Children
The forces of political correctness, along with the dumbing down of education in America, have contrived to make history (a.k.a. social studies) one of the least appealing subjects for elementary and middle-school children.  Parents can counter the eye-glazing, yawn-making textbooks that most schools use by introducing their youngsters to the very funny, wildly irreverent Horrible Histories by British author Terry Deary.   The twenty or so books--from The Groovy Greeks to The Blitzed Brits--are jampacked with the kind of grisly details, obnoxious cartoons and strange-but-true facts that other history books for kids leave out.  In the publisher's words, "this is history with all the nasty bits left in."

The series (which has sold 2.5 million copies in the UK) has turned one 12-year-old we know into a late-night reader who regularly promises (and fails) to turn his light out in "just a few more minutes."  He says, "Terry Deary proves to you that there were a lot of grim and gruesome things that went on, and he tells you all about them."  Dates and major events are clearly presented, but you also learn, in The Frightful First World War, that troublesome German recruits were made "to scrub out the corporals' room with a toothbrush" and that the way to survive a poison gas attack was to breath through urine-soaked handkerchief.  Lots of fun quizzes and silly cartoons by illustrator Martin Brown round out the offerings in each book.  A few Horrible Histories can be found at and at; the best selection can be found at bookstores in the UK, including those at Heathrow.  For more on Terry Deary and Martin Brown, click here.

Wedding of the Waters
Readers who want to dig away at fundamental economic causes should take a look at  Peter Bernstein’s new book on the Erie Canal, probably the seminal event in American nineteenth-century economic history.  It is called Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation

The Closing of the American Frontier
Fortunately, we will change our ways whether we like it or not. In his severely influential study, The Frontier in American History, Frederick Jackson Turner talked of the closing of the American frontier and, in effect, said our big changes were behind us. But Americans on the move are still creating new frontiers. The population continues to move South and West--and now away from the Coasts--where it will create a different kind of Republic not influenced by the fuzzy thinking of New York Times editorial writers or the sages in Cambridge. And new emigrants from literally everywhere are flocking to the U.S., creating a potent diversity beyond the imaginings of ideologues on the Left and the Right. All our migrants--from inside and outside the U.S. as revealed by the latest census findings--promise to rekindle thrift, common sense, and a larger sense of community all about their chosen provinces in these United States.

Gold, Porcelain, Espionage, Land, Power, and Women
Consultant Robert Keefer writes to share his fascination with Janet Gleeson’s The Arcanum, the much-lauded story of the invention of European porcelain, the founding of Meissen Porcelain outside Dresden, and the eventual ascendancy of European porcelain over Chinese offerings.  While not discovering gold, the alchemist Johann Frederick Bottger came up with porcelain instead, hoping to square things with the very demanding Augustus II of Saxony.  One reviewer particularly recommends the description of banquets, citing “the 2,200-piece dinner services” and “porcelain finery, including an eight-foot-high model of the Piazza Navona with running rosewater.”

Poetry Wins the War
While Alan Turing cracked German spy codes for the British, Leo Marks invented codes that foiled Hitler's minions.  You can read about this in his new book, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 (Free Press, 1999).  His basic code system used poetry, with each agent choosing his words from a poem.  As he says in his book, "I hadn't thought that writing poetry would be my contribution to Hitler's downfall."  See The New York Times, A13, July 17, 1999, "Writing Codes, Movies, and a Book." 

An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton, by Richard A. Posner (Harvard University Press, 1999), stings several hardened law school professors whose 1998 letter urged Congress not to impeach President Clinton. "An unkind critic might describe the signing by intellectuals of petitions, open letters, and full-page ads as a form of herd behavior (the 'herd of independent minds') by the animal that likes to see its name in print."  My one-time classmate Posner does a wonderful job of dispatching just about everybody who touched Monicagate.  If nitpicking, we might ask him whoever thought law school professors were intellectuals.  In fact, we hope his next book will tell us how the law community is diminishing and becoming our national polity.

Eating Crow
As head of the USIA, Henry Catto went hat in hand to get an additional appropriation from a suspicious Iowan congressman.  Sitting down, he pulled a knife and fork out of his pocket and laid them down between him and Representative Neil Smith.   "Sir," he said, "I am here to eat crow." (See pp. 310-11, Henry E. Catto, Jr., Ambassadors at Sea (University of Texas Press, 1998)).  As ambassador to El Salvador, the OAS and Great Britain--in addition to several other roles--Henry Catto had to eat crow more than once.   But, as this among other books demonstrates, he did it with grace and wit.   Moreover, we learn that he was an able and loyal public servant, particularly in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  We glean from these memoirs that he was close enough to several leaders to illuminate their virtues and considerable foibles.



John Kaaga - American Philosophy: A Love Story (11-30-16)

Christopher Hitchens - Mortality - 2014 (08-13-14)

John Gardner - Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? - 1961 (08-13-14)

Eric Kandel - Age of Insight - 2012 (06-18-14)

Sigmund Freud - An Autobiographical Study (06-18-14)

The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature. Richard Smith. 2013. (01-01-14)

Fire in the Ashes, Theodore White

The Making of the President, Theodore White

The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan

America the Philosophical, Carlin Romano

Philosopher's Holiday, Irwin Edman

A Nation of Wusses, Ed Rendell

The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas - Gustave Flaubert

Small Memories - Jose Saramago - 2011

Living Well Is the Best Revenge - Calvin Tomkins - 1998

Who could not want to know the subject of Living Well is the Best Revenge?  He and his wife Sara were great friends of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Cole Porters, and Ernest Hemingway in Paris of the 1920s. (6-22-11)

Keith Richards Life – 2010

“For many years, I slept, on average, twice a week.  This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes.”  -- Keith Richards (12-15-10)

Charles P. Kindleberger - Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises - 2005 (09-15-10)

Richard McGregor –The Party – 2010
None can hold a candle to the Chinese Communist Party, which takes ruling-class networking to an entirely new level. The red machine gives the party apparatus a hotline into multiple arms of the state, including the government-owned companies that China promotes around the world these days as independent commercial entities.”  The WSJ article is an escerpt from McGregor’s book The Party. (07-14-10)

Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others ~ Marco Iacoboni - 2008 (04-07-10)

Harry Hurt – Hurt Yourself – September 2008 (02-10-10)

Mark Lamster - Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens – 2009 (10-14-09)

Musicophilia: Tales Of Music and the Brain -- Oliver Sachs  -- 2008 (04-15-09)

The German Idea of Freedom -- Leonard Krieger – 1973 (04-15-09)

My Losing Season– Pat Conroy – 2002 (04-15-09)

Obsession: A History -2008 - Lennard J Davis (04-01-09)

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga (03-18-09)

The Wisdom of Crowds - 2005 - James Surowiecki (03-04-09)

CLR James
We had never heard of CLR James until Cedric the Englishman brought him up in connection with cricket.  James was a Marxist theorist from the West Indies whose fame outside revolutionary circles arises from Beyond a Boundary, his book on cricket, a game perhaps even more fascinating internationally than soccer.  He traces its impact on the development of a united West Indian liberation consciousness, as these islands sought to separate themselves from the British.  In time Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to captain the islands, an honor that had been denied to previous great black players, the whites always having headed up the Windies team.  James gave us the famous expression: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” 

Surely that’s the best and briefest commentary on specialists anywhere.  To know one thing, no matter how well, is not to know very much.  The educated individual capable of playing on global playing fields does not just master a bunch of skills, or accumulate 1,000,000 bits of information.  Of course, he needs all that, but he must be more than the sum of his parts.  He needs a consciousness that is much broader than the playing field, region, nation, or ideology in which he finds himself, so that he does not become its slave.

General Batiste’s Aggressive Retreat
“On June 19, the day before the change-of command ceremony, he filled out a retirement form on his computer and faxed it to his four-star commander in Germany….  The next day, Gen. Batiste, speaking at the ceremony, began his protest…”  See “The Two-Star Rebel,” Wall Street Journal, May 13-14, 2006, pp. A1-A5, where you can read a long and arresting account of how John Batiste, a general on the way to the top, turned down his next star and the 2d most important Army post in Iraq, to follow his conscience.  Unlike other protesting generals who have howled about Donald Rumsfeld’s misdeeds from the comfort of their easy chairs in retirement, this soldier gave up the career chase because he could no longer bear Rummy’s gross mismanagement of the war.  Again and again, men and women of superior talent and keen intelligence are facing the same dilemma—how does one act with honor and conviction when caught up in a world that’s lost its head. 

The Bard William Shakespeake touched on this very question in several of his later works, but in none more tellingly than Troilus and Cressida.  There, at Troy, we slither through a war where nobody—Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Troilus, Cressida—emerges heroic, and to quote a famous line, “all the argument is a whore and a cuckold.”  All become but buffoons, and the times make a mockery of love, honor, and loyalty.

Celebrating the Fourth
We haul out the usual array of delights for the Fourth—corn on the cob and hot dogs, a dip in a cool stream, a timid patch of fireworks, and remembered moments of the Tall Ships on the Hudson, the Statute of Liberty, and the Empire State Building festooned with bright lights during the Bicentennial back in 1976.  Our reading goes to tawdry biographies and witty novels, well removed from the periodicals and media fare that chops up our daily life. 

Of course, we slipped in some oddities, such as Lavender-Skewered Shrimp in Lemon, Olive, Oil and Garlic, given our new very consuming interest in all that the spices of the world have to offer us.  And to inoculate ourselves against Patriotic Gore, we poured over history to find a drink that would bring our spirits up to the occasion.

The Peter Principle
Written in 1969, The Peter Principle was a humorous business treatise that led to a British sitcom of the same name.  In it Dr. Lawrence J. Peter claimed that “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”  But no matter how humorous, Peter was in deadly earnest.  Sadly he has been vindicated by time.  Hapless incompetents have seized every throne.

Deeply Superficial
Ava Garner is best known for one cunning witticism: “Deep down, I’m pretty superficial.”  She actually cracked quite a few, but we will get to that.  Ava’s on our screen at the moment because a dreadful biography, Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing, from a movie groupie named Lee Server, has lurched into the world in 2006, just in time for summer reading.  Five hundred and fifty one pages and counting, reviewed favorably in every place imaginable, it’s one of those baloney-packed affairs that you don’t have to pay too much attention to, good for those 100-degree days when you don’t want your brain to be challenged. 

Ava hailed from Grabtown in Johnson County, North Carolina, just miles from Smithfield, where her remains are buried.  She’s the most important thing that ever happened to either town or the county, so a museum has been put there to secure her memory.  Her chance visit to New York led to a career at MGM, largely in second-rate movies, but with a life spread across a wide canvas from Spain to Latin America and London in the company of larger than life figures such as John Huston and Robert Graves, and pint-size husbands Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra.  We have always been startled by the acclaim she arouses, though certainly she had more allure than a mostly sexless sex symbol of her times, Marilyn Monroe.  What we did not realize ‘til now was that Ava had a fast, incisive tongue—drunk or sober. 

She provides interesting counterpoint to another summer read, Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae, an autobiography that carries Spark through her first novel, The Comforters in 1957.  Spark passed away in Italy in April 2006, which event invites a reprise on her life.  She, too, has a connection with the movies, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her best known novel, having been made over into a flick, starring the ever gifted Maggie Smith. 

They both hailed from the provinces—Edinburgh for Spark and central North Carolina in Gardner’s case.  Spark was the intellectual, lecturing now and again at more than one academic venue, twirling a strand of hair as she thought her way through her talk.  Curiously, Gardner was more intellectually honest, cutting right to the point, able in an instant, for example, to find her own self superficial, never hiding behind artifice. 

Spark talks about setting the record straight, dueling with those who got the facts wrong about this or that, at odds with husbands, lovers, and others.  In her autobiography, she is busy telling you how others got her wrong, and how she got it right.  Her daily regime rather bitter; all her life was in her art.  One knows she was an immense talent, but suspects she had an unpleasant persona.  The swashbuckling Gardner really didn’t give a damn, partying, drinking, and lusting her way through life.  She put all her art into life, and will not be long remembered as an actress. 

Web of Government
A fertile concept in America, from our earliest days, is benign neglect.  The British were at their best when they did not pay too much attention to the Navigation Laws and other instruments they used to regulate the colonies: closer attention to their possessions lost them North America.  The late Daniel Moynihan touched on a bevy of  urban problems that government has only made worse, and which begin to resolve themselves if left untouched.  He counseled benign neglect.  Over-meddling by both the Feds and the states in education seemed to have helped America get dumber, as well as exhausting our teachers and students.  One classic commentary to government gone excessive is R. M. MacIver’s The Web of Government.

Creaky Public Health
The public health establishment has gone into severe decline worldwide, not just in the United States.  The old Soviet Union, incidentally, promulgated some worthy health measures: now Russia stumbles along.  A decent public health system in these United States would do more to buck up our health and button down our health bill than anything else on the drawing boards.  But right now, at every level of government, public health is but a lost treasure, a dream gone.  If you want to read about this deterioration, you can find Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust: The Decline of Global Public Health in our Infinite Bookstore.  For this reason, the public health sector offers private enterprise unbelievable opportunities. 

But certainly part of the decline must be laid at the door of university educators.  First off, we are amazed at the number of renowned universities with huge endowments that do not have schools of public health.  In fact, we may baldly claim that any university that lacks such a school simply has opted out of the 21st century: such education is a crying need everywhere.  Arguably, the trustees of such incomplete universities do not understand their responsibilities to society and to the growth of critical knowledge.  You can find a pretty good, but not definitive, list of schools at the Association of Schools of Public Health.  (5/29/06)

Guerilla Warfare
Painfully, the U.S. Army is learning something about guerilla warfare.  Emerging from Vietnam, it blamed our losses there on politicians who did not allow it free rein to bring its full firepower to bear on the North Vietnamese.  But its braver theorists have since realized that it only knew how to fight conventional wars, when anti-guerilla tactics were called for, both in Vietnam and in Iraq.  See “As Iraq War Rages, Army Re-Examines Lessons of Vietnam,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2006, pp. A1 and A13.  Now it learned what the British achieved during their victory over the Communists in Malaysia: massive, conventional forces cannot win.  Their strikes alienate the citizenry who have to be won over and who have to lead the fight against guerillas—if the war is to be won.  And, guerilla forces eventually wear out the resources and willpower of a conventional enemy, given enough time.  The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich and Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl, both authors being Army officers, are slowly changing Army doctrine, equipping it to deal with the wars of attrition where the enemy melts into the crowd.  (4/19/06)

New Ideas
As we have said in several other spots, the really bright, original ideas now are coming from countries out of the mainstream.  In “Just One Fish in the Big Pond,” we refer to America’s diminished status in the world, as it becomes just one country in the globally interdependent network that must collaborate to share in the economic and intellectual ferment beyond our borders. 

These days a great deal of thought is being given to creativity.  Nancy Andreasen is trying to explore the neurological roots of creativity, which she begins to explore in The Creating Brain.  Paul Johnson , a broadbrush historian at Yale, is just out with Creators.   It would be a stretch to say that either knows much about creativity, but there’s still time enough for them to make a contribution.  That people in several disciplines are focused on creativity only highlights the fact that the nation is in a mindless slough at the moment, and that creativity is probably the only way in which we can recharge our political and economic system.  It was an unusually broad swathe of creative leaders that won for this nation its Revolution and its Constitution.  People now have begun seriously working on the problem of creativity, because it is a problem. 

Our own thought is that high-order creativity in America is, above all, the result of successful importation from abroad.  Of people and thoughts, not fragile notebook computers.  We’re great because of our very diverse immigrant stocks and our ability to assimilate them.  Now we must travel with purpose in order to bring back the little seeds that may grow into tall trees.  It seems self evident, as in the oyster, that it will take an irritant from outside—a grain of sand—to create a new pearl.  (5/22/06)

Profumo Passes
John Profumo, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War 1960-1963 and Fifth Baron of the United Kingdom of Italy, died Thursday at age 91.  He had been brought low 40 years back by his dalliance with Christine Keeler: 

Profumo, in dinner-jacket, first met Christine Keeler, wearing nothing but a dripping towel, at the swimming pool of Cliveden, the country home of Lord Astor, in whose grounds Stephen Ward rented a cottage.  Keeler was Ward’s guest, Profumo was Astor’s up at the “big house.”  On the sultry evening of July 8, 1961, he had gone down to the pool with his host, and their wives, for a cooling after-dinner stroll. 

For a good read of his climb into the upper reaches of British politics and his quick tumble down the backside of the mountain, you will have to go to the British rags, which have a much better feel for salacious gossip.  Try the Times of London, which we have cited above, or the Guardian, which places this rosy scandal in the frame of the whole social revolution of the sixties.  Profumo’s affair and his lies to Parliament about it ultimately dragged down Harold MacMillan as well, who ostensibly resigned as Prime Minister due to illness.  The New York Times does not do this sort of thing well, its guilt-racked editors incapable of laying out the naked facts unless they can call in a consulting psychologist to opine what it all means.  In any event, London, which thrives on recollections of more glorious days, really has cornered the market on obituaries, if we are to believe Marilyn Johnson’s new book The Dead Beat

Since that time Profumo and his wife Valerie Dobson, a British actress who faithfully stood by him, had worked ceaselessly for the poor, a worthy Purgatory for this dapper and very well rounded fast track politician and World War II gallant.  Even more than America, British society, particularly its upper crust, does not forgive its fallen heroes, though an occasional eminence would still dare to shake his hand and salute his life of atonement.  He was hung out to dry. 

Many titillating British sexual scandals in high places have been aired since that time, without all the frenzy.  We ourselves are always a bit heartened when something heterosexual happens in Britain, since illicit appetites at Oxford and Cambridge have so often run in the other direction, sometimes with dire consequences for Western security, as in the Blunt Affair.  (5/15/06)

Lewis and Sports Management
Michael Lewis has to be one of the more interesting chroniclers of our time, and he has caught hold of some trends that we all seem to miss.  We have not really followed the in’s and out’s of his career, but we think his life as author got started in Liars Poker, where he recounted his own life before writing at Salomon Brothers.  In this witty book, he showed investment banking to be a pissing game where the contestants go to all sorts of pains to show who has the longest stream.  The theme of gamesmanship and competitive antics shows up a lot in his writing, revealing, in The New New Thing, Jim Clark of Silicon Valley to be first and foremost a gambler in who very much understood the art of bluffing.

We’re taken as well by his writings about big-time athletics.  There, we think, he depicts avant garde management processes that leave the business world in the dust.  On the one hand, he has shown how general managers with limited resources can put together winning ball clubs by combining statistical analysis with recruiting.  We discussed just this in “Sportsmanship”:

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game lays out how General Manager Billy Beane has used statistics and intellect to put together winning ball clubs at the Oakland Athletics.  Similar systems for measuring value have buttressed the Red Sox under the guidance of GM Theo Epstein.  They have proven that there’s a lot to be had in the dregs of the wine bottle and the leftover players whom nobody wants.  This is all part of a tendency of the new breed of managers to get very much more out of limited resources.  Increasingly, we will be using mathematics in several fields of activity to marshal what we need in an environment where the options are constantly changing.

Now Lewis has moved from hardball recruitment practices to dynamic operations principles.  In a look at college football, he has shown how Coach Mike Leach of Texas Tech has run rings around his peers with a whole different view of how the game should be played.  In a passing game, he puts out more receivers and does more plays than ordinary heavyweight teams.  Huge emphasis is placed on running and conditioning: the coach puts his players in better fettle than those of the opposition.  For the first two or even three quarters, Leach uses diverse plays to probe how the opposing team defends against his gamut of plays.  His quarterbacks have great latitude to depart from the playbook set before the game, so that they do not respond to an evolving situation with setpiece tactics.  In game after game, this has led to rapidfire touchdowns towards the end of the game, leading to scores that literally embarrass opposing coaches, who begin the day with high confidence.  Some of this is detailed in “Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep,” Sunday Times Magazine, December 4, 2005, pp. 58-65 and 109-114.  “Synergy, in Leach’s view, doesn’t come from mixing runs with passes but from throwing the ball everywhere on the field, to every possible person allowed to catch a ball.”  Operations research—in football—has led to a different kind of air-war dominated game.  (1/25/06)

Home of the Brave
Francis Scott Keyes called ours “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  That heroism goes much beyond our warriors.  To our left and right are people fighting the good fight with death, always with heroic success, whether for days, or months, or years.  We find that so many live on the edge of darkness imbued with a total nobility that is shared by their families.  There’s Matt Ginop, a quadriplegic, who has managed to put up an award winning spinal injury website to help his comrades-in-arms.  Or Stan, who has been strafed by cancer in his brain and lungs and is off to Boston each week to see if Dana Farber’s experimental vaccine will cure the beast.  Or Phil in Chicago, passionate about wine and life, who is using a novel arsenic potion (arsenic trioxide) to wrestle with his formerly untreatable glioblastoma.  Finally, we get reports on the rector in Washington, who has labored too hard for her flock, and has just come off the ventilator after 31 days in the hospital, beset by a particularly vicious incarnation of pneumonia, her caretakers wary of the new, virulent, drug resistant forms of staph that now infest all the nation’s wards.

Last week in “Getting out of Limbo,” you heard from unstoppable Lynn Nelson, who berated all the hand wringers who moan and groan about bird flu but don’t do anything about it.  This multi-talented man sticks close to home these days, assailed by a panoply of health complaints about which he does not complain.  In fact, he writes to tell us that he has had a fun time self diagnosing his new problem, diabetes, which all the doctors managed to miss when they last looked at him.  He’s playing the hand he has been dealt. In contrast, one is reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, where we learn that the act of despair itself, especially despair over one’s sins, can be so consuming as to deny one any chance of salvation. The will to act must overcome the temptation to weep.

Conniff: Of Mice and Men
We’ve never met the man, but we have talked a whole lot.  It’s hard to remember exactly what brought us together, but we have been exchanging virtual witticisms for a few years now.  Richard Conniff is an eloquent and amusing writer, who, in his own words, has “done 2 basic things for the last 20 years.  One is to write about animals for National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.  And the other is to write about rich people for Architectural Digest.  So I’ve been going back and forth between these two worlds for a long time.  I didn’t see the connection at first.” 

These days he’s better known for his animal writing about human beings, two volumes of which we have plumbed.  The Natural History of the Rich looks at the various pushings and shovings of the rich who, no matter how rarified, always show an excess of animal spirits, while The Ape in the Corner Office takes a primatologist’s eye to the workplace, where he brings all the anglings and occasional cooperation of white collar workers into focus.  His “ape” website is  He pretty well establishes that man is just another primate in love with hierarchy.  Conniff is a rather fascinating guy, so you should get up to speed on him before you plunge into his prose.  Most likely, we will next catch him on another trip to Madagascar when we happen to exchange messages: he is as likely to be off to unlikely places as our West Coast detective friend who is our best source on Haiti and Thailand.  We would suggest you get a breezy overview of the man by consulting  Since we are deeply superficial, what we like best about Conniff is his random anecdotes that tell us everything, such as this little gem from the Richie Rich book: 

The plane banked eastward.  Away from the green swath of the river valley, the bleached-out canvas of desert stretched endlessly to both horizons.  We headed for the lawyer’s hot springs ranch, his refuge from humanity, and we landed on a rough dirt runway atop a mesa.  The only rules of the species that seemed to matter out there were the personal ones posted on a wall at the ranch:  “Do not talk politics.  Do not talk business.  Do not hustle elected officials.  Eat when you are hungry.  Piss anywhere.” 

By now, though, I knew better. The rich like to pretend that nature is something they have risen above.  But in their hearts, they know rising is a myth.  (5/24/06)

The Real Mao
Nicholas D. Kristof, a fine journalist, provides an excellent review of Mao: The Unknown Story in the New York Times Book Review, October 23, 2005, pp. 1 and 10-11.  Jung Chang, along with her husband historian Jon Halliday, has “written a biography of Mao that will help destroy his reputation forever.”  “No wonder the Chinese government has banned not only this book but issues of magazines with reviews of it, for Mao emerges from these pages as another Hitler or Stalin.”  The Chinese Communist Party in its early days was entirely under the thumb of Russia.  “Mao rose to be party leader not because he was a favorite of his fellow Chinese, but because Moscow chose him.”  “More startling, they argue that Mao didn’t even walk most of the Long March—he was carried.” 

The Communist Party, of course, is having some difficulty maintaining its legitimacy in modern China, and the erosion of the myth of Mao will not help.  Such a book suggests that the Party will have to broaden its pantheon to include other historic figures and embrace some of the traditions coming from earlier periods in its history.  (11/30/05)

The American Colossus
A British historian now camped out at Harvard has told America that it’s now an empire, and that it had better deal with it.  Niall Ferguson’s Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire somehow suggests at the same time that our day in the imperial sun may be over before we all know it has begun.  One review of the book ably details Ferguson’s exposition of our omnipotence.  But the book is overdone, and, worse yet, our politicos take it seriously.  The fellows down in Washington are acting like we can run the world, and this worldview threatens to drain our already depleted national treasury well below zero. 

Foreign Babes in Beijing
Rachel DeWoskin banged around China with her father, a noted sinologist, in her youth.  After Columbia, she rushed off to China and went to work for a pr firm.  By luck she wandered into a job that made her China famous—one of two title gals in a Chinese nighttime soap called “Foreign Babes in Beijing.”  Since she has done a book by this name—in case you’ve forgotten, Foreign Babes in Beijing—an account of her times in China as well as on the show.  And she tucks in four stories of girl friends in China, capturing the flavor of China through the lives of her China peers.  DeWoskin most wanted to catch the rapidfire change that has taken hold of modern China, it probably changing more in 90s than it did in the last 5,000.  For a good account on De Woskin, see Columbia, Spring 2005, “Our Babe in Beijing,” pp. 11-15.  (7/6/05)

The Best Friend Joe Louis Ever Had
We all know that Max Schmeling floored Joe Louis in the first fight, and Louis returned the favor later.  But we know little of their friendship and Schmeling’s generosity to Louis.  “Schmeling treasured camaraderie and friendship and somehow, each of his ring opponents became his friend.  He regularly and discreetly gave the down-and-out Joe Louis gifts of money, and the friendship continued after death: when the great champion died in 1981 Schmeling paid for the funeral.”  See our commentary about Schmeling in “Sportmanship.”  Both Joyce Carol Oates and David Margolick, author of a new book called Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling (see tha New York Times Book Review, October 2, 2005, pp. 10-11 and the New York Times Sports, October 2, 2005, p. 11) are, on the other hand, very disparaging about Schmeling.  See also  (10/26/05)

The Funnies.  On a recent visit to the magazine store we found today’s funny books to be tours of dark worlds, more science fiction than comics.  Manga comics flourish in Japan and have spread into this country but they hardly turn the lights on (  The New York Times has just added a section to its magazine (soon to disappear we hope) that is called “the funnies,” but is decidedly Gothic.  See Elephantiasis at the Times.  Stephen Colbert, who on Monday kicked off his own spin off called the “Colbert Report” (, a splinter from the unfunny Daily Show (, is distinguished, not because of his wit, but because of  his geeky manner.  He sums up the comic state of affairs in an interview with the New York Times (September 25, 2005)  where he reports on a phenomenon much worse than The End of History and the Last Man proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1992.  The true apocalypse is the “End of Jokes,” which have all been carried off to the morgue: 

Deborah Salomon of the Times: I just read somewhere that jokes are less popular than they used to be.   

Colbert: You mean like, “Two guys walk into a bar”?  I think you are right.  I get e-mailed jokes a lot—by friends who are not in the business.  Jokes live on in e-mail.  E-mail has become a museum of jokes. 

Indeed, jokes by the millions have been archived in emails, but, just like those on the Comedy Central website, they are labored and lacking.  Relics.

Character is Destiny.  John McCain (along with Mark Salter) is just out with a book Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember.  Its title is borrowed from the great Greek existentialist philosopher Heraclitus, who was full of pregnant aphorisms.  The 34 characters who people the book are role models for us and point to the very dimension that is in short supply now—in Washington.  With some confidence, we would claim that character will out and big people will stage a comeback in our councils of state.

Philosopher's Holiday
The trouble with trade talk is that it is usually very boring.  Full of inn jokes.  Brian Weatherson is probably no exception.  He’s a philosopher now at Cornell.  That said, we find morsels on his sites (homepage plus blog) entertaining.  We urge them on you when you really need cerebral giggles.  Thoughts and Rants is at  The brain of Brian is at  You can learn, for instance, if there actually is philosophical humor ( or about an injunction to save water by drinking beer (  Or you might scan some posts that prove with one liners that every brand of philosophy is damn silly (  To check out Weatherson, read his notes on vagueness, which are pretty vague (  Somehow this reminded us of Philosopher’s Holiday, a book handily by our bedside growing up, right there beside the Wind and the Willows.  Columbia tells us that philosopher Erdman, the author, never strayed too far from the practical problems of life.  Apparently he said, “Education is the process of casting false pearls before real swine.”  Today websites that are over-clever amount to philosopher’s holidays.  See  (9/28/05)

Survival of the Fittest Wit
Perhaps Charles Darwin’s greatest passion was worms, and he summed up many of his observations about them in The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations of Their Habitats (1881).  Our friend Arch W observes that Mr. Darwin put down objections to his findings with rapier like elegance.  For instance, of one critic he said, “M. D’Archiac must have thus argued from inner consciousness and not from observation….”  (8/3/05)

Theory of the Compulsive Class
In 1899 Thorstein Bunde Veblen penned his most famous work, Theory of the Leisure Class, where he essayed on  “conspicuous consumption,” the propensity of the upwardly mobile to spend income on needless objects to achieve one-up status within a society perpetually in social competition.  (See  We expect him to gain new currency, now that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications are discovering that we are becoming visibly class-riven again. See,,SB11159
5026421432611-IBje4NmlaJ4nZyqaHqHaqmEm4,00.html.  Also, look at new series on class in Times  Of course, the name of his book was a misnomer, because there is never any hint of leisure amongst compulsive men and women on the make.  They are endlessly in motion, always trying to prove what goes up never comes down. 

When sport becomes a business, slicing away its roots in leisure, the romance goes out of the game.  It then just becomes part of a culture of conspicuous consumption and one-upsmanship, a joyless thing at best.  Then “Debranding,” which we have previously discussed, sets in.  John Daly, grossly overweight, married now to a lady with some legal problems, powerful and out of control, a boyish gleam that still has him looking mighty young, riding through the U.S. in his RV far from the first class air cabin of his peers—he has the smell of leisure about him.  His waywardness is needed to get the game back on course. 

Augustine’s Laws
Norm Augustine, who once commanded the weapons effort at the Pentagon and went on to lead the Martin Marietta Corporation, authored Augustine’s Laws, which told us that the cost of jet planes grows exponentially as you add more electronics and the breakdowns multiply at about the same rate.  That’s about true of everything else in our society, too.  As we add complex technology everywhere, things don’t work and costs skyrocket.  We have commented on this previously in “Systems on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Letters from the Global Province, October 2, 2002.   

We encounter this everyday in our cellphone.  The Nokia that AT&T provided us five or so years ago operated without a hitch for years.  Now the basic model at AT&T Wireless, which has replaced it, has all sorts of new functions we don’t want, has broken down beyond repair 3 times, and offers 30% poorer reception.  It is only laziness that prevents us from migrating to another supplier. 

With breakdown all about us, is it any wonder that much of our populace wants to disconnect and pursue a calming, detached, Thoreau-like simplicity?  Indeed, any time you can pull out of some national network, there is some assurance life will go a little smoother. For example, our good friend in Ottawa finds existence to be a little bit happier  because he has installed huge generators at home and the office, and life goes on uninterrupted even during  frequent meltdowns of the electric power grid.

Traditional Americans
With media to goad them on, extremists in every sphere become more extreme.  But Americans of traditional values still hug the middle of the road—and are not as poles apart as all our pundits would have us believe.  Red America and Blue America are really all of a piece, if Professor Wayne Baker of the University of Michigan has gotten it right.  (See  A very interesting and original fellow, he doubles as a business and a sociology professor.  His America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception, from Princeton University Press (2004), explores where Americans are at and does not find them to be bitterly divided. 

They can, he finds, live with ambiguity.  A great many of them, for instance, are against abortion, but, equally, believe in a woman’s right to choose.  Likewise Americans want to guard the environment even as they espouse economic growth.  That is, they deal with modernity, not by making a choice between either and or, but instead choosing both either and or.  As a citation about his book says, Baker looks at the evidence and finds that “The results are surprising.  The evidence shows overwhelmingly that America has not lost its traditional values, that the nation compares favorably with most other societies, and that the culture war is largely a myth.” 

If Baker has it right, we must wonder whether our government and our press are at all representative of the people.  And if we are poorly served by them, it is because they do not capture who we are and what we care about.  And worse yet, they ignore the world as it is and as it is becoming, making it terribly difficult to get where we must go. Until we get the right story on the front page, it’s going to be awfully hard for us to join the twenty-first century. 

Foreign Babes in Beijing
Rachel DeWoskin banged around China with her father, a noted sinologist, in her youth.  After Columbia, she rushed off to China and went to work for a pr firm.  By luck she wandered into a job that made her China famous—one of two title gals in a Chinese nighttime soap called “Foreign Babes in Beijing.”  Since she has done a book by this name—in case you’ve forgotten, Foreign Babes in Beijing—an account of her times in China as well as on the show.  And she tucks in four stories of girl friends in China, capturing the flavor of China through the lives of her China peers.  DeWoskin most wanted to catch the rapidfire change that has taken hold of modern China, it probably changing more in 90s than it did in the last 5,000.  For a good account on De Woskin, see Columbia, Spring 2005, “Our Babe in Beijing,” pp. 11-15.  (7/6/05)

From Babe to Poesy
Rachel DeWoskin is a major poetic talent, according to Robert Pinsky, one-time Poet Laureate of the United States, who had her under his wing at Boston University after her return from China.  In China she had starred in a radio soap called “Foreign Babes in Bejing,” the title also of a book she has authored about her post-college experience in China.  Her poetry as well feasts on the China adventure: 

Outside McDonald’s downtown
in Beijing, I board a bus bound
for mountains with Xiao Dai
who carries equipment, asks why
I have to be so headstrong.
I say nothing. We belong
to a climbing club. Sheer rocks 

For more on her poetry, see Ploughshares at
prmarticleID=7854.  (7/20/05)

The Simplicity Franchise
If you poke around the Internet, you will fast discover that Henry David Thoreau owns the simplicity franchise.  This 19th century philosopher and individualist, who practiced his preachings about the simple life at Walden Pond and in the Boston environs, literally chanted “simplicity” throughout his works.  In Walden, he said, “Our life is frittered away by detail….  Simplify, simplify, simplify!  ...  Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.” 

His call for a life of spare essentials next to nature has resonated ever since, never more than now, even as life has become steadily more convoluted.  Lately, incidentally, even our scientists have discovered the health-giving properties of a meditative life (see item 122 in Stitch in Time) as Westerners learn to block out the hubbub of society.  At a very practical level, we notice that Real Simple magazine has gained readership and 44.5% more advertising pages in the first 10 months of 2003, even as its more grandiose homemaking competitor Martha Stewart Living has fallen more than 30%.  (See the New York Times, October 10, 2003, pp. C1 and C4).  Chaos and complexity have truly come out of their caves at the beginning of the 21st century, so Thoreau’s strains are striking more of a chord now than they did when he was living.

A new book is out about James Reston, who was for decades the powerful New York Times columnist and Washington bureau chief and confidant of presidents, senators, and a host of world leaders.  The book is Scotty:  James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism.  It was during his tenure that the New York Times counted politically, and it’s never been as important since.  He was civil, a middle-of-the-roader, discreet enough to realize he did not have to tell all.  For this he is somewhat disparaged now.  Throughout he was an optimist about the American society in which he lived.   Clearly no newsperson has come along who enjoys the same power and influence.  One of the uses of affirmation and optimism, forgotten by the distrustful, catty scribblers of the present day, is that it lets you sway history as well as report on it.  Too clever, acerbic journalists only strut at the margins of life well away from the playing field. 

Robert A. Caro
We often forget that this marvelous historian and biographer came off the New Brunswick Daily Home News and Long Island’s Newsday.  But he has the journalist’s predilection to tell the whole story, leaving  nothing—and we mean nothing—out.  What he picks are  politicians who have clearly made a giant difference in American society, because they will stop at nothing to move their plans along.  So his subjects have been Robert Moses, who paved over New York City with cement and, in effect, instructed the nation that highways are the American route to eternity, and Lyndon Johnson who showed us that you “get along by going along.”  You’d say that Caro has a passion for authoritarian, well-meaning, and simultaneously corrupt individuals who did us proud and/or did us in—who knows.  His picks are interesting, because Caro himself has a genial, hardworking, ethical demeanor:  he is not afraid to continuously make his point, but, unlike his subjects, he clearly does not push people around.  Somewhat to his wife’s chagrin and as part of his next chapter on Johnson’s career, the man who must pursue every detail next intends to go and live in Vietnam, where he will surely capture details about the Vietnam War that have escaped all those who have come before.  Caro is a relentless reporter who fairly presents all sides of his subjects, but perhaps never quite makes up his own mind about them.  For a good account of him, see Scott Sherman’s “Caro’s Way” in the May/June 2002 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.   Also learn a bit about Caro at, perhaps paying special attention to the Kurt Vonnegut interview.

Some of his titles include:

Creative Hotspots
Richard Mellon, professor of regional development at Carnegie Mellon, is just out with The Rise of the Creative Class:  And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.  He gives us a creativity top 10 list, topped by San Francisco and then followed by Austin, San Diego-Boston (tie), Seattle, Raleigh-Durham, Houston, Washington-Baltimore, New York, Dallas-Minneapolis-St. Paul (tie).  Looking at census data on the number of creative workers, high-tech activity, patent development, percentage of college-educated individuals, and the numbers of both gay and bohemian people, he finds that both creativity and wealth migrate to areas with ample concentration of these elements.  We are not at all sure he has picked the right factors or even the right areas (some of the cities he has picked have clearly peaked out), but he has gotten one thing right.  Clearly creativity and knowledge are over-concentrated in virtually every country on earth, with a few places garnering huge amounts of the talent.  The development problem is to figure out how to distribute the talent across the land and and create ferment in more places.  Further, the key planning question for even creative hotspots is to figure out more precisely what they are good at and what they are poor at.  So-called high tech areas tend to think they can tackle all sorts of technology questions.  The truth is that each one is only really suited to take on a few technology challenges.

Mrs. Jack's Place:  The Gardner Museum
If you are just going to one, this is it.  But first read about the patroness in Mrs. Jack:  An Autobiography of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Louise Hill Tharp.  Then visit the website at, which, unlike many museum sites, is easy to use and comfortably informative.  The Gardner is a little worse for wear, what with funding problems and a burglary or two.  But, as you wander, you can still imagine Mrs. Jack’s goings on there, transporting you to an earlier time when Brahmins dreamed of bringing Europe into their lives.  Boston has a raft of good museums, but the best ones seem to surround you with history, more than collections.  The Gardner Museum.  280 The Fenway, Boston, MA 02115.  Telephone:  617-566-1401.

San Francisco Passing
Whether San Francisco remakes itself or not, companies are well advised to stage their assault on both Asia and China from San Francisco.  Sure enough, just the other day, we saw a new outlet for a hamburger chain from the Philippines, Jollibee, south of Market, yet another indication of the portal nature of San Francisco.  In this view, San Francsisco’s bible should be F.S.C. Northrop’s Meeting of East and West.

Ethically Challenged
Certain places in this world produce a disproportionate amount of brainy, creative people, and we don't know exactly why.  Rumor has it that West Virginia has generated an unusual number of Rhodes Scholars, and we ourselves know a tranche of West Virginians who've left the state who simply are fountains of ideas.  Austria is like this: it produces a number of seminal thinkers -- Schumpterer, Drucker, Freud, Wittgenstein, Popper.  And then there's Peter Singer, of Austrian stock by way of Australia, and now at Princeton.  A sensitive, bright man, he's accused of every sin on earth, since he wonders whether babies who are vegetative (almost without consciousness) should be put to death, and since he contemplates a number of other moral remedies that fly in the ointments of ordinary men.  He's been called a murderer and worse, yet he asks each of us to think about living on much less so that others can live a bit better.  Probably he thinks a bit harder than most -- wrongheaded or not -- about how we deliver the greatest good to the greatest number in a world where only a small fraction of human beings really lay claim to the good life.  See the New York Times, September 5, 1999.  Singer's books include Animal Liberation and Writings on an Ethical Life.

Tearing-Up Your Career
Novelist and essayist Arthur Koestler had a diverse career in many countries. Best known for Darkness at Noon, which made it to Broadway, he's less known for what is reputedly a passable manual on sex, put together under a pseudonym while he was in England.

We like him best for his two part autobiography, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, where he recounts how he began life all over again on at least two or three occasions. Educated in the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he tore up his record of courses taken at the last (in those days you kept your own university transcript) and headed off to Israel to work in the kibbutz, or something like that. Later on, he became a semi-renowned journalist at a liberal newspaper in Germany only to leave it and the beginnings of Nazism behind to try out Soviet Russia. Equipped with no more than a phrase book and a couple of names to contact, he tried his hand at Stalin's Russia. Unlike his whole nest of relatives in Austria and Germany, he fled security. Ironically, of course, he lived to tell his story; they didn't.

Smart Communities
An unfocused idea that never goes away--but never quite manages to blossom--is "smart communities." At the simplest level it means wiring a bunch of people together with the hope that they will rapidly accrue and exchange knowledge that has tremendous relevance to their economic, cultural, and political lives. After that, it can refer to anything, including Plato's Republic where the philosopher king makes sure that all subjects are in touch with the wisdom of the gods on an everyday basis.

Religious Ecstasy
Once again the Atlantic publishes a tree-shaking article.  Toby Lester's "Oh, Gods!" (February 2002, pp. 37-45) shows just how potent a force religion is worldwide in this 21st century.  David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, notes that "we have identified nine thousand and nine hundred distinct religions in the world increasing by two or three religions every day."  As older established religions wither, new religions are spreading like viruses.  "One of the most remarkable changes ... is the underreported shift in the center of gravity in the Christian world ... a dramatic move from North to South.  Christianity is most vital now in Africa, Asia, and Latin America...."  New missionaries from these exotic regions are coming into developed countries to spread the Word."

Singapore, according to Ian Buruma, is a "Disneyland with capital punishment" (New York Times Review of Books, December 16, 2001, p. 11).  See his Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing.

Wittgenstein's Poker
By a couple of British journalists, the book purports to recap and explain 10 minutes at the Cambridge Moral Science Club just after World War II, when the Viennese philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper clashed early on at a presentation Popper gave to the group. Wittgenstein interrupted and tried to prevail in the argument by rhetorical flourishes and a menacing wave of a poker.

What we learn first is that the British philosophers, at least back then, were rather slavish sorts, who easily clustered at the feet of ostensible greats.  If they were teenie boppers, we would be able to call them groupies. Instead, since they were ponderous, we call them philosophers.  More importantly, in oversimple terms, we discover that the core argument between the two lay in their concept of philosophy.  For the wealthy, Jewish, upperclass Wittgenstein, philosophy was a semantic tool that sort of cleared away language mix-ups, and little else. It was a game, but certainly not the solution to humanity's problems.  For Popper, the middleclass Austrian, who was also part of Vienna's very productive Jewish intellectual circles, philosophy did help remake the world. For him it was not a game but a career with a vital mission.

It is Wittgenstein, not Popper, who still has a hold over the academic imagination and young philosophers on the make.  Probably his terrible angst has turned him into an appealing figure for romantic minds.  Hardly a day went by for Wittgenstein where he did not contemplate "suicide as a possibility." He died in 1951, age 62.

Bloom Understands
This weekend C-Span rebroadcast a 6/28/00 interview with Harold Bloom of Yale and NYU, occasioned by his book, How to Read and Why. You can, and we do, disagree with Bloom on 1,000 points, but thinking people will find it hard to contradict his main thesis: The counterculture has overwhelmed culture throughout the world. A sort of neo-Platonic gibberish has set in where absurdum orthodoxies have stifled understanding. This surely adds complexity to our national debate about education, since often more education dollars only serve to buy more education mediocrity, once quality is out the window. “C” again.

Can we not argue that it is cultural decline itself that has overwhelmed quality in all spheres—wine, education, products and services, the character of our governance? The ultimate righting of our political economy seems inextricably tied to a revival of quality in our culture.

Bloom reserves particular despair for The New York Times, finding its book review and Sunday magazine to be muddled organs of political correctness and ignorance. And, for him, it is all downhill from there.

Democracy and Education
Years ago, John W. Gardner wrote about democracy and education. In its way, it dealt with the present conundrum. How do you keep the needs of the moment from swallowing the whole of our future? How do you mix rare and popular in the same glass? If you are going to have a viticulture, you absolutely have to have a culture that exalts quality.  Some of Gardner's works include:

We previously have talked about Steve Talbot's love/hate relationship with technology.  (See Best of Class, item 50.)  It worries him, but, of course, he's a computer guy.  We enjoy the fact that he's now given up conversing by email.  Just like Bill Joy at SUN or all the plasma physicists we know who are upset by atomic power.  But his wandering newsletter is read by everybody and has tremendous impact.  Lately he has been wrestling with globalization gone astray, a topic now brought to a white heat by Duke professor Michael Hardt, who has tried to lay a neo-leftist theoretical foundation for all the clamor against technology and economics of global forces.  Co-author, with Italian Antonio Negri, of Empire, he is now read and talked about in universities around the world.  See The New York Times, July 7, 2001, pp. A15 and A17.  Subscribe to Netfuture at

Talking about Big Issues
In our over-digitized lives, where we are horribly subject to distraction and where we don’t take time to even read the daily newspaper, we have become difficult to talk to about deeply important matters.  It’s a task for those who care about long-term worldly issues to communicate about them with the vox populi.  But that just means that creative people are getting more imaginative.  Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, is out with yet another romantic comedy, The Girl in the Café.  Except in the background, this film deals with the plight of poor nations, helping revive the concept of massive debt relief, something the world had to do in the thirties (  Ironically, of course, the U.S. has just tightened up its personal bankruptcy laws, something it will have to reverse, given its widening, dramatic gap in incomes between the rich and the poor. Well, we don’t know how the movie is, but we will give it a go.  We are hoping for pleasant propaganda and colorful people.  It is not only the politically correct who are out with art that pushes ideas: Michael Crichton’s State of Fear throws brickbats at the global warming polemicists.  (9/14/05)

Business as Usual.  Bursting out of Australia in 1982, the New Wave group Men at Work became a huge global hit, its Business as Usual at the top of the charts in America longer than a first album from any other group.  But then  they quarreled.  Two members left the group.  By 1985 they were just a memory, and today this fallen star is on few lips.

Nonetheless, they’re part of the Australian Surprise.  Many of the Anglo-Saxon economies have performed awfully well in the last 15 years, a function of both ideology and culture.  But the Aussies have outdone us all, based on some shrewd governance and the wealth of natural resources generated there that have been wolfed down by hungry Asian economies. As we implied in “The Australian Attraction,” the land down under produces more than its share of firsts, because it is just far enough away from things to think a bit differently.  While the conventional research tanks in the U.S. medical establishment labored over dietary and psychological explanations for ulcers that flattered the egos and filled the pockets of the American healthcare system for better than half a century, Australian doctors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren spotted the pylori that were the basis of 95% of ulcers.  For this they won the Nobel Prize

But, as we said, Men of Work fell apart.  Victims of the polarization that has now afflicted all of American politics and a host of our institutions, they lost it all, subject to the cancer of the spirit that taxes anybody who labors for fame and fortune, and not for the love of the game.  This splintering apart affects men at work in several venues. 

There’s a movie called The Legend of Bagger Vance, lovingly put together by Robert Redford, about a 193l golf match in Savannah, Georgia between Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, and a local hero that we and others have watched innumerable times.  Oddly enough, we have not read the novel by Steven Pressfield, but it will be one of our New Year’s resolutions to do so.  Somewhere someone says in the movie, “Golf is not a game you can win.  All you can do is play the game.”  Surely that’s life.  And for damn sure it’s what work is all about where most everybody tries to win, but where you can only play the game.  Try to win, and you and those around you will surely fall apart.

Do You Speak American?  Robert MacNeil, the one-time delightful co-host of the PBS Newshour, has turned to writing these days—both fact and fiction.  In his book, Do You Speak American?, he asks this question that we can answer without reading the book.  No, we don’t.  We have been pulled apart, section against section, gender against gender, trade against trade, so that we are many nations divided by a vaguely common language.  This has made it difficult for us to get our politics, and our business, and our lives done gracefully. 

Our conclusion here is, apparently, the diagnosis of the book.  In a fine essay about the documentary that sprung from MacNeil’s work, Will Schroeder in Humanities acknowledges that sectional differences have hardened as the years go by: 

These changes suggest that American speech is not becoming more homogeneous. “This is the most surprising result of our research,” says [linguist William] Labov.  “While local dialects of small communities may be receding, the larger regional patterns are becoming more different from each other.”  He says that the dialects of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Saint Louis, Dallas, and Los Angeles are more different from each other today than they were just fifty years ago. 

Maybe if we can reach back a bit, we can better come together again.  We can remember the ties that bind us together. 

The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America
Tom Shachtman's look at the decline of eloquence and its effect of the transmission of knowledge.  Among other things, he shows how epxerts in everything use gooblegood to keep us under their thumbs.

Paradise Lost--California
Victor Davis Hanson, grape farmer and professor of classics, tells how California has lost its infrastructure through squabbling and fuzzy thinking.  See The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2001, p. A22.

"Not since the robed philosophers of Rome and Greece bickered and harangued each other by lamplight has history seen such a sophisticated preindustrial society as our own."

Hanson goes on to relate how Californians have done in their electric-power, educational, and transportation systems.  To learn more from Hanson, see his new book, The Land Was Everything.

The Global Me
This book by G. Pascal Zachary says "hybrids" make the world go round.   Two-, three-, and even four-culture people make nations and companies prosper, says the author.  This argument relates to our own proposition that (a) the real links between nations are being created at the cultural level and (b) global individuals shaped by several cultures have become the vehicles for creating such fusion.

Spaceship Earth
The wonderful R. Buckminster Fuller, in his trim little volume Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, claimed that we need pirates to keep the earth going, not cogmasters who specialize in recreating yesterdays.  That seems about right. 

So Things Aren't So Bad After All?
If all the recent election and post-election doomsday predictions about how American democracy is on the way out are too much for you, you can pick up a feel-good book out of the Cato Institute called It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years.  Stephen Moore and Julian Lincoln Simon show that everything is getting more wonderful, Pangloss-style, even as we speak, and it will get better yet if we will only be smart enough to abolish government.

Operating Manual Spaceship Earth
Even more than the philosophers, we would hold that the American genius R. Buckminster Fuller had integrity, had in particular an integrated view of the world.  In this regard, we would particularly recommend a read of his short, lucid Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, where he tells us of the intellectual “pirates” who can make the earth spin productively.  And, likewise, he tells us about the specialists who muck up matters with their narrow thoughts and limited driving skills: 

Of course, our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking.  This means that the potentially-integratable-techno-economic advantages accruing to society from the myriad specializations are not comprehended integratively and therefore are not realized, or they are realized only in negative ways, in new weaponry or the industrial support only of warfaring. 

All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable.  Yet in observing a little child, we find it is interested in everything and spontaneously apprehends, comprehends, and co-ordinates an ever expending inventory of experiences.  Children are enthusiastic planetarium audiences.  Nothing seems to be more prominent about human life than its wanting to understand all and put everything together. 

For more from his operating manual, see   Specialization, he finds, is the enemy of integrity, which we have defined here as an integrated view of how the world should work and how one should act in that world.   Without a global operating manual, we will surely go off course.  And our economy will be in the ditch. 

Nimble Politics
“‘The $l.7 million spent by the No on 200 forces (not counting the $275,000 in ads from the Times) was almost three times what we spent.  Each vote we got cost us 60 cents; each vote they got cost them $2.50.” (From Ward Connerly, Creating Equal:   My Fight Against Race Preferences, p. 245).  We all have heard of Connerly’s Proposition 209 win in California against racial preferences, but little about I-200 in Washington—a more remarkable victory, frankly.  A smart Governor, every major corporation in Washington State, a rogue’s galley of semi-scholars such as Harvard’s Derek Bok, and everybody else you can imagine was arrayed against Connerly and Company in this contest.  All he had was a sound idea (racial preference systems are racially discriminatory and, hence, morally, legally, and humanly wrong with bad consequences for the nation’s minorities) and a lot of tactical finesse.   Politicians should track his principles and his politics.  But, as a result, we still need a prescription for helping the underclass that goes beyond the self-reliance that seems to lie behind Connerly’s thinking.

Hitchens on Kerry
Journalist Chistopher Hitchens is a witty, acid, truth-telling journalist with original views.  We refer you to his comment on John Kerry’s A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America.  He claims it “merits Mark Twain’s comment on the Book of Mormon—‘chloroform in print.’”  See the New York Times Book Review, August 15, 2004, p. 11.  Is it possible that the Senator is simply boring?

The Ultimate Joke
A boring book about jokes just out: Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Making Ideas Big
It's always a question as to why one good idea or bad idea captures the popular imagination, while great ideas sit on the shelf for decades or centuries.  And, in our own age, we ask why drivel and nonsense become buzz, infecting all our media in the sweep of a moment.  Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (Little, Brown) is another attempt to explain how ideas spread in our times.  This is especially interesting now, because we don't really know how ideas propagate and spread in the age of the Internet. Mainstream newspapers and broadcasters often fail to connect with the popular mind, while informal media such as chatboards and evangelists distribute rumors, ideas, and fads much more efficiently.

Mr. Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker, has shown some skill at flying his own balloons as The New Yorker has become more of a spin parlor.  In this vein, his website is very much to the point in how you tip the media your way in the age of buzz.

Best Friendship Book of 1999
Just as you conclude the nation is going to hell in a handbasket, you discover some new wonderful people who are marching to a different drummer.  We have already pointed out the best love story of 1999 (see Best of Class #81), and now we discover a gem about friendship.  It's Stephen E. Ambrose's Comrades, Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals.  He writes about the Ambrose family, but also about Eisenhower and Patton, and Lewis and Clark.  It includes an affecting chapter, "Nary A Friend: Richard Nixon," in which Ambrose calls Nixon a man of enormous talent and drive, brought low by his very inability to have true friendship.

Mistress of Manners
In the 1950s there was a sometime ambassadoress Perle Mesta -- whom we called the hostess with the mostest and who later became the subject of a fun Broadway play.  Someday there will be a musical about Letitia Baldrige, called In a Class of Her Own, re-using Cole Porter’s song, “You’re the Tops.”  As you can see from her website (, she is the best of the manners’ ladies, because she believes good manners alone won’t do it.  She is the mistress of manners and the doyenne of civility.  She feels you must have heart, kindness, and style.  Her family is quality itself; the Baldrige Awards for Quality are, in fact, named after Malcolm Baldrige, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Commerce.  She herself also put time in the White House, serving as Jackie Kennedy’s Chief of Staff.  She’s written innumerable books about manners, a few of which we have listed below:

The Lap of Material Luxury
For those wanting to hear more about our materialism, see The New York Times, August 16, 1999, p. B8, "The $2300 Pillow and the Selling of Luxury."  The article cites Robert Frank's Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess (Free Press) and James B. Twitchell's Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (Columbia University Press).  The New York Times wants you to enjoy it while feeling guilty.

Creative Brain Drain
Richard Florida at Carnegie Mellon, author of Cities and the Creative Class and Rise of the Creative Class, is not an original thinker, but he is a very good popularizer of ideas that are floating around in academic pastures.  Many, including Florida, have noticed that talent, especially bright foreign graduates of our universities, are drifting away from America, no longer hanging about to work their wonders here.  University graduates, over from China, don’t go to Silicon Valley but return to Greater China.  Florida’s version of our creative brain drain is pretty well summed up in an his article “America’s Best and Brightest are Leaving and Taking the Creative Economy with Them,” in Across the Board, September 2004, pp. 34-40.  (6/8/05)

Coming of Age in Arabia
As we have said previously, true advances in the Arabic and Moslem worlds will have to arise from the liberation of women, who are second class non-citizens throughout the Middle East   See our 30 October 2002 Letter from the Global Province, “Falling off the Map,” and Big Ideas, item 137, “Arabic Women’s News Service.”   Little bits of emancipation are happening, without much help from the West.  

Most recently, The Economist, June 19,2004, pp. 26-8, in “Out of the Shadows, into the World,” comments on their women’s emergence.  For instance, 55% of  Saudi Arabia’s university students are now women, and this is characteristic of  female educational progress in  the region.  Female life expectancy is rising, and birthrates are falling, allowing women more time for other activities.  In halting ways, they are making occasional progress in both the political and business spheres. 

Barbara Ehrenreich of The New York Times on July 29, 2004, p. A27 recognizes the relationship between the status of Arab women and terrorism.  “So here in one word is my new counterterrorism strategy for Kerry: feminism.”  Downtrodden women are the biggest emblem of the medieval thinking ruling Arabia.  Bringing the region into the 20th or 21st centuries would do much to end the standoff between the West and the Middle East. 

Most recently, the plight of women in Saudi Arabia and, conversely, the threat emancipated women pose to extremist male Arabs, has been dramatized by a much noticed book, Inside the Kingdom, by Carmen bin Laden, ex-wife of Osama’s older brother Yeslam.  Educated in the West as a liberal Moslem, she sweltered under the restrictions of life in Saudi Arabia.  A Swiss divorce saved her and her daughters from the stranglehold of life in the oil kingdom.

Men of Conviction
The numbers of Americans behind bars and out on parole has become simply staggering.  The cost of our prisons and of so many wasted lives is as incomprehensible as that of our broken healthcare system.  Nearly 6.9 million people, or 3.2% of our population, are doing time  Four million-plus are on probation, and about 775,000 are on parole.  The number of women parolees has risen dramatically in parallel with  the rise in women involved in serious crimes.  See The New York Times, July 26, 2004, p. A10.  This would suggest that we require new ways of integrating crime doers into our economy—whether they are on the loose or are behind bars.   

A recent book, Miracle at Sing Sing, by Ralph Blumenthal, deals with one of the pioneers of more enlightened incarceration.  Lewis E. Lawes headed Sing Sing from 1919 to 1941, and he brought some real changes to the system.  ”Men who took human life and served time are the best behaved and best trusted in Sing Sing,” claimed Lawes.  Indeed, very few murderers who were paroled ever returned to prison.  See The New York Times, July 27, 2004, p. B8.  Lawes apparently showed that tough love could work out very well even with the most hardened of criminals, the very types who were sent to Sing Sing. 

The growth of prisons has changed life in America, particularly out in the rural counties where they tend to be located.  Perhaps a third of America’s counties now have at least one prison.  In a study entitled “The New Landscape of Imprisonment:  Mapping America’s Prison Expansion” published by the Urban Institute, we learn that federal and state prisons expanded from 592 in 1974 to 1023 in 2000.  Texas and Florida have led the way in building new prisons.  “The study found that the county with the largest share of its residents in prison was Concho County, Tex., with a population of just under 4,000 and 33 percent of its population in prison.”  See The New York Times, April 30, 2004, p. A15.   

The New York Times recently issued one of its periodic kneejerk editorials on how prisons across the nation have to be reclaimed from the wardens and from the unions representing prison guards entitled “Taking Back the Prisons,” August 2, 2004, p. A20.  It particularly pointed to California and the need for a more assertive state prisons authority.  It cited Judge Thelton Henderson, who put a special master in charge at Pelican Bay in order to curb abuses, and it speculated that the courts may have to step in more broadly to bring rogue prisons to heel. 

Of course, The Times is on the one hand too extreme, and on the other not extreme enough.  It’s not a question of putting band aids on our prison systems.  The real chore is to fold back into society 7 million people who have been cast onto another planet, at great cost to society and to themselves.

Paul Farmer
You can find out about Paul Farmer simply by pouring through the Internet or by reading his book Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor or by reading Tracy Kidder’s book about him, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.  A long time ago, he broke free from conventional medicine and medical lucre to take on the poor, which is what he thinks medicine is all about.  He set up a community based healthcare system in Haiti that not only brought affordable care to the poor but went beyond this to attack the social causes making for illness.  Then too, he upset the applecart in treating tuberculosis, showing that an intensive medicine-based approach was the best way to deal with TB, particularly so that the poor would not develop an immunity to treatment.  He has gone on to work at the Harvard Medical School and on as well to other impoverished spots on the globe.  Appropriately, he is both physician and anthropologist.  To read in detail about him and his achievement, see

Farmer’s work, as it turns out, has been supported by some pretty bountiful angels. Remarkable Tom White of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Jupiter, Florida has virtually given away the whole of his considerable fortune, much of it to Partners in Health, Farmer’s organization.  Indeed, Partners has named a treatment center in Haiti after him.  You can read about all his good works in the Boston Globe, March 23, 2004, in an article by Bella English.  Virtually the whole of his philanthropy has been focused on the poor, both at home and around the world.  White has been a long-time supporter of Partners: Bill and Melinda Gates, through their Foundation, have since become major contributors.  Time Magazine called White the best philanthropist of 2001 in an article entitled “Quiet Giver” by Dan Kadlec.

Input-Output.  Last week we stumbled onto a first-class online magazine put out by none other than the Association for Computing Machinery.  It will rattle some of your preconceptions.  Who would think this society of computer apparatchiks would be the sponsor of a wide-angle publication that looks at the goals of computing; the evolution, progress, and future of the field; and, to a limited extent, its reason for being?  We find a number of articles there, too many to mention, to be provocative for anybody who wants to think about how any of society’s systems evolve.  Its title, Ubiquity, reminds one of the role God enjoyed in the metaphysics of the medieval philosophers when he was pictured as all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-present.  Since computing has become so pervasive in the life of the world, it is fair to think of it as everywhere.  Ubiquity blows aside our own preconceptions about computer engineers, making them seem much less linear. 

We would particularly recommend to you an interview there with consultant Fran Johansson related to his book The Medici Effect.  “The book talks about the fact that we have the greatest chance of coming up with groundbreaking insights at the intersection of different disciplines or cultures.” (See  He cites, for instance, “swarm intelligence, which essentially came out of the intersection of the study of social insects and computer search algorithms.”  He calls it “the Medici Effect,” inspired by the powerful creative effects the Medici had in Florence of the 1500s by bringing together talented people from so many disciplines. 



Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery - Henry Marsh (8-12-15)

On the Move: A Life - Oliver Sachs (8-12-15)

Salt Your Way to Health - David Brownstein (8-27-14)

Grain Brain - David Perlmutter (8-27-14)

Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death - Katy Butler (09-11-13)

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens

Arno Karlen - Biography of a Germ - 2001 (06-02-10)

Richard Burton – Anatomy of Melancholy – 1621 (02-10-10)

Anthony Rao and Michelle Seaton – The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World – 2009

Anatomy of an Illness
Almost from the beginning, the gods made clear that Norman Cousins was an extraordinary fellow, all the more so since he, too, would suffer greatly. Journalist, author, professor, and advocate for World Government, he carried his message to every podium in the country.  You could not utter the words World Federalist and think of anybody but him.  As deftly, forcefully, but peacefully as anyone, he worked for peace and nuclear commonsense. 

But, ironically, he is much better remembered and achieved wider prominence for his battles with disease.  “At age 11, he was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanatorium.” During the course of his life, he battled serious illness, to include heart disease and arthritis, on 3 occasions: he was a 3-time loser, but a 3-time winner.  No doctor ever suspected he would live to the ripe old age of 85.  Through it all, he put out the Saturday Review of Literature, a balanced effort, free of the axe-to-grind mentality that dominates today’s book and literary reviews, carrying it from a circulation of 20,000 to 650,000.  It’s hard to believe it’s gone now. 

Anatomy of an Illness is an account of his encounter and victory over his collagen disease, an encounter which later was made into a TV movie of the same name starring Ed Asner.  Later on, he recounted his affair (illness) of the heart in The Healing Heart: Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness.  His true grit comes up time and again: “Death is not the greatest loss in life.  The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”  “The more serious the illness, the more important it is for you to fight back, mobilizing all your resources-spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical.”

Just Blade Runners
Katrina Firlik, a Connecticut neurosurgeon, is just out with Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside.  “Good neurosurgeons (who, by the way, spend more time operating on spines than they do on brains) like to keep things simple” (“Maybe Brain Surgeons Aren’t as Smart as You Thought,” New York Times, May 12, 2006, p. B33.  Firlik’s book dwells heavily on her life and career, but it also gives a pretty good tour of the brain surgery world.  The review of the book by William Grimes in the Times is not terribly profound, and it more or less suggests that brain surgery is no less, no more complicated than other forms of surgical endeavor.  It does make clear that Firlik is a fairly vivid writer who can communicate about her world in terms the layperson can surely understand.  (6/28/06)

We're Not as Sick as We Think We Are
American health is not as good as it should be, but it’s not quite as bad as we think.  First off, we are a nation of pill-takers and hypochondriacs.  Secondly, our health system is so avid that it reports complaints that others miss.  Though the statistics make us look like we are all one step from the grave and suggest that the Brits are healthier, a closer examination shows that they’re cholesterol and mortality are in the same range as ours.  See “If You’ve Got a Pulse, You’re Sick,” New York Times, May 21, 2006, pp. WK 1 & 5.  “Dr. Hadler has written a book about the problem of medicalization, calling it Last Well Person:  How to Stay Well Despite the Health Care System.  The title refers to a story told by Dr. Clifton K. Meador, director of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance”: 

One day, as Dr. Meador tells it, a doctor-in-training was asked by his professor to define a well person.  The resident thought for a moment. A well person, he said, is “someone who has not been completely worked up.” 

We can find something wrong with almost anybody.  (6/28/06)

Genius under the Microscope
In “Marked by Genius,” Christopher Chabris of Harvard’s Department of Psychology, does an uncommonly fine review of Nancy Andreasen’s The Creating Brain.  “Her laboratory of the University of Iowa was one of the first to use modern MRI technology and IQ testing methods to confirm the suspicion that more intelligent people tend to have larger brains.”  A biological psychiatrist, she studies what goes wrong with the brain during mental illness, but she has a special interest “in extraordinary creative genius.  Such genius has long been associated with serious mental illness, especially schizophrenia and drug abuse.”  In the 70s and 80s, based on studies of visiting faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she “showed that mental illness was indeed much more prevalent in the creative achievers.”  “But surprisingly, the disease most associated with creativity was not psychosis but depression, especially bipolar disorder (manic depression).”  Loosely interpreted, both psychosis and creativity require loose connections between the conceptual structures of the brain, accounting for their close association.  (1/18/06)

Flexing Your Brain
The literature is now littered with hypotheses that say the brain can be stretched and be rewired, overcoming the deterioration of age and other mental defects, even surging beyond the capabilities that were apparent there at birth.  We have referred to the “Flexible Brain.”  A few years back Larry Katz et. al. came out with Keep Your Brain Alive, offering 83 neurobic exercises.  Nancy Andreasen’s The Creating Brain provides a more ambitious regime, offering not only agility but creativity. 

But we think the Japanese are really onto something.  See “Nintendo’s Brain-Training Game Targets Older Players,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2006, pp. B1 and B4.  “Japan’s hottest videograme is about to hit the U.S … it’s a bunch of word and math problems with a distinctly no-thrills title: Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day.”  Nintendo President Satoru Iwata read a book by neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima two years ago that showed how you could sharpen your brain doing simple math problems.  Having studied test subjects in his lab, Nintendo programmers have devised a hand-held game that includes drills that stimulate the brain most.  Overseas is critical for Nintendo, which typically gets 75% of its revenues offshore. “Brain Age flashes questions on one screen, while the player writes answers on the other.”  The player, in effect, takes timed drills. 

“Brain imaging has shown that, after just a few weeks of training, the pattern of activity in older brains actually starts to look like that in younger brains.”  Different kinds of drills relate to different forms of activity—short term memory, information processing, etc.  Drills for one activity don’t spill over into other activities. Nintendo has definitely penetrated older segments of its home market, well beyond teen age enthusiasts. 

“The version of the game that will go on sales in the U.S. on April 1 (2006) will include counting, memory and reading drills, as well as soduku….”  Sleeker iterations of the DS or DoubleScreen are on the way.  The revive-your-brain market is open for the taking.  (4/26/06)

Cutting Down on Cut Ups
Business Week (July 18, 2005, pp. 32-35) headlined a very provocative article called “Is Heart Surgery Worth It?”  To a host of medical experts, it is not at all clear that heart surgery isn’t vastly overdone, and many would contend it should be done away with except in instances where the patient is clearly in dire trouble. Norton Hadler, medical professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of Last Well Person, thinks bypass surgery in particular should have been relegated to the junk heap a decade ago.  On the other hand, Dr. Timothy Gardner, a cardiac surgeon in Delaware and co-editor of Operative Cardiac Surgery thinks bypasses have worked very well indeed.  Heart surgery is $100 billion industry, and so there are not only health but vast economic questions at stake.  Further, the amount of surgery done may be a proxy for a more general problem—runaway, costly, and ineffective treatment throughout the healthcare establishment.  Both Fisher and Wennberg at Dartmouth have long claimed that a sizable portion of healthcare is not driven by either need or results, but rather by available supply.  (9/7/05)

Why the Tears?  Where has the funny gone, you ask?  Perhaps people are down in the dumps: the health statisticians do report that depression is growing mightily, not only in the United States but in all the developed nations, at great cost to the soul and to the economy.  Maybe too, people are working too hard: that condition is particularly acute in these United States, and it does not leave much time for horseplay.  And, as Austin designer Mike Hicks remarks, urbanities are now shorn of their second home and relegated to domestic caviar.  See “Caviar Emptor.” 

But we mainly lay the lack of laughter at the door of the live media, particularly TV.  Ideologists of all stripes accuse the media of all sorts of failings, often laying a bum rap at the feet of journalists, who are increasingly mediocre but not all that slanted.  The news and TV fare is downright repetitious, often nasty, and morbidly voyeuristic.  No wonder people wear dreary faces: Dr. Andrew Weil, if we remember rightly, is advising people to turn off their radios and TVs in order to feel better.  He’s got a new book out on Healthy Aging, and we assume that it includes laughter.  Man cannot live by scandal alone.  Networks and cable alike probably are bringing people down. 

Ex-pounded Governor
We remember that Governor Bill, later Pres Bill, had a terrible fondness for all sorts of junk food, constantly battled his waistline, and finally had to give himself over to major heart surgery.  Now we learn that current Governor Mike Huckabee is battling weight in one and all.  He shed 100 pounds by the end of 2004, all recounted in his book Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork.  See “The Governor Who Put his State on a Diet,” New York Times, August 10, 2005, p. D2. “His transformation led him to begin the Health Arkansas initiative … the goal of which has been to persuade” his fellow citizens “to join him….”  Under the program, state employees “are given 30 minutes a day for exercise.”  They also get days off as a reward for healthy living.  If all this is not satisfying, one can buy Liza Ashley’s Thirty Years at the Mansion, full of recipes she used to fatten up 7 Arkansas governors.  Read about the fatty years at  (8/31/05)

Prostate Bible
A prostate specialist and surgeon for 25 years, Dr. Peter Scardino has authored a book—Dr. Peter Scardino’s Prostate Book—that looks at cancer, prostatitis, BPH, and everything else that can go wrong with the prostate.  As The Economist points out, the book is sorely needed.  Prostate cancer, if caught early, is curable, and yet more men die of it than any other cancer except lung.  See The Economist, April 9, 2005, p. 70. Scardino is prostate cancer chair at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.  Interestingly, Scardino got his first degree from Yale—in religious studies.   

Even with Scardino, prostate sufferers will want to read further.  One site with a great deal of digestible information is to include links to articles such as the famous Andrew Grove account in Fortune (  We cannot emphasize enough that the Phoenix site is terrific and it should be consulted by anybody with even the vaguest interest in prostate cancer.  And here is yet another reading list:  The sources on prostate problems are wide and deep.  (8/31/05)

Temple’s World (Autism)
Rigid thinking and behavior; poor eye contact and obliviousness to social cues; a fixation on subjects and objects; hypersensitivity to sound and a tendency to anxiety; lack of emotion and common sense; late speech and echolalia: these are some of the telltale signs of an autistic child.  The surging incidence of autism in America baffles the medical establishment.  The causes are not well understood.  Bruno Bettelheim’s theories about the psychological underpinnings of autism have been discarded.  The condition stems from neurological abnormalities in the brain, which show up as cognitive and sensory disorders in a child.  Something as basic as forced eye contact or the presence of strangers can trigger sensory overload.  Auditory processing deficiencies mean the child may have trouble understanding even the purpose of speech. 

Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin (Vintage, 1996), is an autism classic.  This delightful, insightful book does not provide all the answers to the mysteries of autism.  Rather, the autistic author illuminates the mind, behavior and outlook on the world of the autistic.  As Dr. Oliver Sacks writes in his elegant foreword: “We get a glimpse of her total bewilderment about other people’s minds, her inability to decipher their expressions and intentions, along with her determination to study them, study us, our alien behaviors, scientifically and systematically, as if (in her own words) she were “an anthropologist on Mars.”  

Grandin is a world-famous expert on cattle psychology and behavior.  A third of all cattle and hogs in the U.S. are handled by equipment she designed.  The key, she explains, is her ability to think in pictures (not words), and her ability to put herself into cattle’s heads and look at the world through their eyes.  Grandin deploys superior visual spatial skills, which she describes as resembling a video library or computer graphics program in her imagination and memory (many autistics have heightened visual abilities for reasons not well understood).  “A great deal of my success in working with animals,” she explains, “comes from the simple fact that I see all kinds of connections between their behavior and certain autistic behaviors … both cattle and people with autism can become very set in their habits.  A change in a daily routine can cause an autistic person to have a tantrum…I have often observed that the senses of some people with autism resemble the acute senses of animals.”  (Reviewed by Andrew Tanzer.) 

The book provides many insights into animal behavior.  Indeed, Grandin seems more comfortable with her animal friends than with homo sapiens.  “Like most autistics, I don’t experience the feelings attached to personal relationships….  Teaching a person with autism the social graces is like coaching an actor for a play.  Every step has to be planned….  Since I don’t have any social intuition, I rely on pure logic, like an expert computer program, to guide my behavior….  When people are responding to each other with emotion rather than intellect, I need to have long discussions with friends who can serve as translators.” 

One of the Thinking in Pictures’ strangest and most fascinating chapters is “Einstein’s Second Cousin.”  Grandin notes that the parents and relatives of many autistic children are intellectually gifted.  There appear to be genetic links between autism and the depression, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia often found in artists, poets, and creative writers.  “The genes that produce normal people with certain talents are likely to be the same genes that produce the abnormalities found at the extreme end of the same continuum.”  She notes that Einstein, Wittgenstein, van Gogh and Bill Gates all show signs of autism, probably Asperger’s Syndrome (in recent weeks, Michelangelo has been added to the list of likely Asperger’s victims).  In this high-functioning form of autism, Asperger’s victims display odd behavior, a childlike quality and greater interest in ideas and work than in human relations.  “The genetic traits that can cause severe disabilities can also provide the giftedness and genius that has produced some of the world’s greatest art and scientific discoveries.” 

Fat Forward
There’s small evidence of progress on the fat front, not only here but abroad.  For the first time in years, Americans dropped a little bit of weight last year.  In Britain, “the average man got thinner in 2002 … for the first time since body-mass-index records began; women’s BMI was static.”  See The Economist, “Fat of the Land,”  March 6, 2004, pp. 51-52.  In both America and Britain, there are various schemes being proposed to impose a “fat tax” on the foods that put on the pounds, and an effort to ban junk food advertising for children.  Sales of chocolate in Britain (the Brits are notorious consumers of sweets) have been falling 2% a year, and food companies are edging into healthier foods.  Salads are moving faster on lunch menus, and exercise clubs are increasing their membership at a healthy rate. 

The question, even so, is whether governments should intervene in the marketplace and how.  Kelly Brownell, chairman of Yale’s psychology department and director of its Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, believes that obesity is a public health prevention problem and that government should be active in combating the “toxic food environment.”  In his book Food Fight, he makes clear that individual dieting alone won’t work when one is surrounded by signals that drive you to consume the wrong things.  Whatever the role of government, it seems clear that overweight individuals are still fighting an uphill battle in trying to reduce in a stressful atmosphere that goads them to consume and does not afford them enough leisure to exercise properly.  Nonetheless, a general change in consciousness about health and obesity in many societies already is leading to a loss of weight at the margins.  For more on Dr. Brownell’s views on government and obesity, see Yale Alumni Magazine, “The Belly of the Beast,” March/April 2004, at  Also see his vita at

Down and Out
On this section of our website, we largely make the argument that health in these United States and around the world can improve by leaps and bounds if we can implement decent preventive health measures either through public health channels or through motivated private sector initiatives.  We think private foundations probably will not get much done about health, whether we are talking about the Rockefellers or the Melissa and Bill Gates Foundation:  they mean well but they suffer from whom they are.  Putting all this aside, some think that large-scale improvements in health are more driven by initiatives in the social and political sphere that seem unrelated to healthcare than by all our tinkerings with health policy.  If this is true, we would focus less on health policy and more on issues like income distribution, public infrastructure, etc.   

This view  comes down to the idea that down and out people don’t have much of a chance to be healthy.  On the one hand, in societies that consume too much and that are torn by income disparencies, there is little resource left over for health.  And, on the other, the poor and stressed lack family cohesion and social amenities that are part of the fabric of health, particularly as relates to mental wellbeing. 

This is well related in The Health of Nations by Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy, published in 2002.  For the stressed and depressed who have no time to read, we would particularly recommend a review of this book we caught in the New England Journal of Medicine (January 2, 2003) by Stephen Bezruchka at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine: 

“The Health of Nations presents evidence from many disciplines that political policies that widen inequalities in income may harm a nation's health.  Kawachi, an internist turned social epidemiologist, and Kennedy, an educational psychologist  present arguments to show that one's relative position in society is more important than absolute wealth or income, not only when it comes to general well-being, but in terms of mortality as well.” 

“We work harder and longer just to keep up with our 1973 standard of living.  This additional work translates into 5 to 10 more weeks of work each year for members of the American labor force than for their European counterparts.  Politicians preach about "family values," but how can families prosper without time for maintenance?  As a result of the orientation toward individual rather than family needs, some people see children as obstacles to individual growth. The authors point out that higher rates of crime occur when the high cultural value placed on competitive achievement clashes with widespread disparities in actual living standards within a society.  Inequality is harmful, and we pay the ultimate price for it with premature deaths.” 

“To improve health in the United States or elsewhere in the world, we must address factors that affect the health of populations but have only indirect relevance for patient care.” 

We ourselves probably regard this point of view as interesting but a distraction for health care professionals.  We do think the decline in the standard of living the nation has suffered since the Vietnam War and the rise in stress occasioned by every employee doing the job of two have brought low the health and welfare of the American community.  Nonetheless, we feel that massive, direct changes in the healthcare system could ratchet American health upwards even with the societal problems cited by the authors.

Drugs High, Drugs Low.  We’re not only buying a bit less at the department store, but we’re also reining in our addiction to drugs.  Americans, as you know, take far too many drugs for far too little effect, both legal and illegal.  While healthcare spending—our worst national problem—consumed over 15% of gross domestic expenditures in 2003 (first time over 15%), the rate of prescription growth dramatically slowed to 10.7% a year from its previous 14.9%.  (See The New York Times, “Nation’s Health Spending Slows, But It Still Hits a Record,” January 11, 2005.)  Consumers pay 30% of prescription drug costs, and their pocketbooks cannot keep up with the bills, so they’re getting a little tight fisted, even when they need the drugs.  Drugs are just one more consumer product category that is  having a little difficulty at retail. 

That said, we are startled to learn that America does not have the highest drug prices in the world, even if the pols and the patients bitterly complain that we pay so much more to the drug companies than other citizens around the globe.  “As the economists Patricia Danzon and Michael Furukawa recently pointed out in the journal Health Affairs, drugs still under patent protection are anywhere from twenty-five to forty per cent more expensive in the United States than in places like England, France, and Canada.  Generic drugs are another story … generic drugs here are among the cheapest in the world.”  (See Malcolm Gladwell, “High Prices,” New Yorker, October 25, 2004, pp. 86-90.  Also see Danzon and Furukawa on “Prices and Availability of Pharmaceuticals: Evidence from Nine Countries,”, a study which was supported by Merck).  “So many important drugs have gone off-patent recently that the rate of increase in drug spending in the United States has fallen sharply for the past four years.  …  The core problem in bringing drug spending under control, in other words, is persuading the users and buyers and prescribers of drugs to behave rationally, and the reason we’re in the mess we’re in is that, so far, we simply haven’t done a very good job of that.”  

“There is a second book out this fall on the prescriptive-drug crisis, called Overdosed America … by John Abramson, who teaches at Harvard Medical School.”  In general, one may ask whether the medical system and marketing machines of the drug companies don’t have us taking too many drugs and the wrong ones (i.e., not enough generics).  Despite the assertions in an impassioned book from Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the renowned New England Journal of Medicine, called The Truth about the Drug Companies:  How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It, it also seems clear that doctors, patients, insurance companies, government—indeed, the whole of society—are at least very compliant co-conspirators in runaway drug expenditures and a health system in which, some authorities think, about a third of all the expenditures are of no value to the patient or society.  The fault lines here have become so visible that we can be certain the tectonic plates are about to shift.  This is an “addictive society”; drugs and healthcare just happen to be two of the things we are hooked on. 

As we have said before in Best of Class and “Making Ideas Big,” Gladwell, whose keen eye spotted what’s really happening on drug prices and to whom we owe the quotes above, is one of those handful of journalists who is worth reading at every turn, since he’s liable to come up with an insight that will destroy your fixed view of things.  He’s just out with a new book called Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.  Timely enough, it’s really an ode in praise of intuition, which is in high demand in an age where the world is being turned upside down.  We need to radically change the way we do things.  For this, intuition and creativity are quintessential, and yet our store of them has atrophied and withered.  Son of a mathematician, Gladwell comes equipped to discover principles and laws beneath complexity, while the rest of us see confusion. 

The Many Fathers of Neoroscience
Just like good ideas, and the earthly children of the gods, neuroscience can claim a host of fathers, with nobody having an absolute claim on its paternity.  We will cast our votes for a couple of fellows here.  First, Sir Charles Scott Sherrington set forth “Sherrington’s Law,” “which states that for every neural activation of a muscle, there is a corresponding inhibition of the opposing muscle.  Sherrington is also known for the study of the synapse, a word which he coined for the then-theoretical connecting point of the neurons” (Wikipedia).  He did considerable work with cholera, tetanus, and diphtheria, was a philosopher, and a poet as well.  Among his works are Integrative Action of the Nervous System, The Brain and its Mechanism, Man on His Nature, and The Reflex Activity of the Spinal Cord.  He won the Nobel Prize in 1932 (

But we could easily choose Santiago Ramon y Cajal.  He is known for proving  that neurons, or nerve cells, are the fundamental elements of the nervous system.  Starting off in artistic directions, he eventually made his way into science. Using and improving on a silver nitrate staining technique from the Italian Golgi, he did conclusive studies in Barcelona that led to his definitive proof of neuron theory in 1889.  (Oddly enough, he had previously been in the opposing camp of thought—the  single “network” theory.)  Cajal and Golgi shared the Nobel Prize in 1906.  Like Sherrington, he made a multitude of contributions to the field.  See  

It is impressive that Sherrington and Cajal made so many discoveries in neuroscience but that their interests and contributions ranged well beyond neuroscience.  Generalists seem to outdo specialists at every turn.  (5/11/05)

Looking for One's Memory
Cathryn Jacobson Ramin’s “In  Search of Lost Time,” New York Times Magazine, December 5, 2004, pp. 76-81 deals with the author’s memory loss and her efforts to deal with it through a memory regimen and more.  In her thirties she began to find that her mind was just not clicking in the same way.  Just before she turned 45, she realized that she had forgotten the title of a film (plus more) that she had just seen with her husband. She went to see Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Center on Aging and author of  The Memory Bible.  Enrolling in a study he was doing, she found out that she had average memory impairment for her age.  Apparently brain cholesterol to promote myelin growth accelerates from youth, but reaches a point in one’s thirties where it produces a protein toxic for myelin and other membranes in the brain.  After tests for deterioration and various attempts to sharpen the memory, she discovered in fact that her loss was not so much due to brain degeneration but to brain damage suffered much earlier in life.  Talking with her brother, she uncovered a number of early whacks she took on the head that probably accounted for her later impairment.   

It is more common than is realized for early concussive effects to show up in later brain impairment, so, signally, much breakdown we attribute to age is actually due to events that occurred much earlier in life.  Wear your helmets.  Adderall immediately brought new focus to her brain, but found that it simultaneously dulled some aspects of life, taking away some of the mental twists and turns she commonly enjoyed.  (3/23/05)

Mind Wide Open
Steven Johnson, making himself the subject of examination, looks into the operations of  his own brain and lays his discoveries out in Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life.  “With the help of a new neurofeedback device called Attention Trainer, he learns how to control his own brainwaves (this is now used with Attention Deficit Disorder children as a way to get their brains to focus as a substitute for Ritalin).”  He learns that the supercomputer model is probably not a good way of looking at the brain, as the psyche turns out to be a battleground of competing forces, rather than a harmoniously unified system.  (From a review in The Guardian, May 15, 2004).  (3/16/05)

Strep and ODD
We have previously noted that there is a small but vocal fraternity that believes there is a direct connection between physical illnesses of various sorts and such disorders as autism and obsessive compulsive disorder in items 121 and in the original entry above.  We ourselves believe there is much to be gained by much more research on the part bacterial and viral infections and environmental influences play in a host of conditions.  This line of thinking is slipping into the mainstream with the New York Times Magazine (May 22, 2005, pp. 65-69), which in a further explication of the Pandas theory relating to rapid-onset O.C.D., asks “Can You Catch Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”  Judith Rapoport, a child psychiatrist who authored The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing, buys into the strep bacteria argument, and a particular advocate is Susan E. Swedo at the National Institute of Mental Health whom we mentioned previously.  Roger Kurlan at the University of Rochester and Edward L. Kaplan at the University of Minnesota don’t buy into the theory, tending to believe, rather, that any kind of infection tends to accentuate a pre-existing OCD condition.  In general researchers are pretty well defended against theses that promote infectious or chemical bases of OCD and other conditions.  (6/29/05)

Medicine's 10 Greatest
Who knows whether the list is right, but it's a chance to learn about some people we did not know.  You can either read Meyer Friedman's and Gerald Friedland's book, Medicine's 10 Greatest Discoveries, or you can get a rundown at Medicine's 10 Greatest Hits: Curiosity's Reward.  The list:

a. 1543 - Vesalius' detailing of human anatomy.
b. 1628 - William Harvey on heart circulation.
c. 1675 - Anton Leeuwenhoek discovers bacteria.
d. 1796 - Edward Jenner uses cowpox to protect against smallpox, and also uses other dead toxins to protect against other diseases.
e. 1842 - Crawford Long develops surgical anesthesia.
f. 1895 - Roentgen and x-rays.
g. 1907 - Ross Harrison grows living cells outside the body.
h. 1912 - Nikolai Anichkov discovers cholesterol is the basis of coronary artery disease.
i. 1928 - Alexander Flemming and penicillin.
j. 1950-53 - Maurice Wilkins isolates single fiber of DNA, leading to work of Watson and Crick who develop a double helix model.

Most of the great work, and most of the great medicine, does not come from drug discoveries but from a better understanding of how the body works.  This tells us where medical research monies should be directed.

Miracles Happen
Not all miracles happen on 34th Street. Unnoticed things of worth and note occur in the hinterlands. In a crisis there's always a determined person who's too stubborn to be scared and who meets the situation head on. Such is Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, mentioned before (see Agile Companies #135), who put the VA on the road to recovery, delivering a whole lot more healthcare while spending a whole lot less dollars per capita. You can read about this in the Wall Street Journal, December 10, 2001, pp. A1 and A10. Or, if you can bear up under some medical jargon, read Dr. Kizer's own account in "Reengineering the Veterans Healthcare System," a chapter in Advancing Federal Sector Healthcare. The bottom line is that the VA has achieved a 25% reduction in per-patient costs, while moving all the treatment numbers in the right direction since 1996.

More Than You Ever Needed to Know About Sawtooth Palmetto
Rick Mendosa has done everything hip and complex, and aspires to be the world's best medical writer about diabetes.  He is a good writer and he clearly has done the definitive article about sawtooth palmetto.  (See  As one of my graduate students opines, "It's for bad pipes," which is also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a condition that often affects men in their 50s, when various swellings make for both difficult and frequent urination.  (If you're a literary sort, read about Paul in John O'Hara's A Rage to Live.)  Now the doctors push surgery or drugs for this condition because that's what doctors do.  To his credit, our own internist suggested sawtooth palmetto, though he could not remember the best recipe which comes out of Germany, apparently.  The source of the new material for all the world, incidentally, is Florida, with Germany, Switzerland, and Italy being the best formularies.  Bottom line: It's sold at Costco, but you may want to look for finer grades.  And the best worldwide standards for alternative treatments, including sawtooth, seem to obtain in Germany, so that's probably where the best alternative, quality drugs come from.

Absolute Puritanism
Theodore Dalyrymple (a.k.a. Anthony Daniels) is a British physician and psychiatrist who is willing to take on the health police.  In this instance, the American Medical Association, gone awry, has gotten mad about late-night liquor advertisements on T.V.  "In my own code, it required no advertisements to persuade me to drink alcohol every day."  "But health is not the only good, much less the supreme good, of human existence.  Indeed, excellent health is neither sufficient nor necessary for the good life, and he is not always happiest who lives longest."  See the Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2001, p. A14.  Also, see Dalrymple's several books, including:

Mass Listeria: The Meaning of Health Scares
So Little Done: The Testament of a Serial Killer
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

Out of Its Mind: Psychiatry in Crisis
Hobson and Leonard talk about the decline in psychiatry and the hordes of untreated patients wandering our streets.  They "provide a neat summary of recent progress in brain science and the treatments it has led to."  Reviewer Paul Raeburn also notes how we have moved too deeply into treatment by drugs, cutting down on psychotherapy--the other vital part of the mental-health cocktail.  See Business Week, July 9, 2001, p. 18.

Dr. Folkman's War
Obviously one has to be obsessive to roll rocks uphill.  Ask the Australian doctor who uncovered the bacterial foundation and cure for ulcers.  Or ask the Boston researcher who thought folic acid might have something to do with arresting heart disease at a time when cholesterol was the sole research theme in Boston and Framingham: he was exiled to a VA hospital.  Likewise, serious researchers in cancer have to take on the world.  A recent book by Robert Cooke, Dr. Folkman's War, details the unseemly way the medical establishment resisted the concept of angio-genesis, which roughly means starving cancer cells to death by cutting off their blood supply.

Decline of Public Health
Catherine Arnst's excellent review of Laurie Garrett's Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health nicely sums up the key messages of this rather exhaustive book (Business Week, October 2, 2000, pp. 29-31).   Worldwide, the public health system is in shambles.  In the U.S., it is simply a disgrace, resulting in mortality figures that are no better than nations with much poorer economies.  Garrett notes that less than 4% of the total improvement in life expectancy since the 1700s can be attributed to 20th century advances in medicine.   Public health measures account for 96% of the improvement, but we're focusing on the 4%.  The economic costs of this folly are increasing.

Decline of Public Health
Catherine Arnst's  excellent review of Laurie Garrett's Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health nicely sums up the key messages of this rather exhaustive book (Business Week, October 2, 2000, pp. 29-31).   Worldwide, the public health system is in shambles.  In the U.S., it is simply a disgrace, resulting in mortality figures that are no better than nations with much poorer economies.  Garrett notes that less than 4% of the total improvement in life expectancy since the 1700s can be attributed to 20th century advances in medicine.   Public health measures account for 96% of the improvement, but we're focusing on the 4%.  The economic costs of this folly are increasing.

Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity, etc.
A close reading of the literature of child-learning problems reveals that we don't know much about all the neuro-glitches that trouble a mass of kids in schools across the land.  Given our ignorance, we are putting awesome amounts of ritalin and other troublesome medications down their throats.  As one physician put it to me, the real problems with these drugs is if they work.  Then you have the quandary of weaning kids off the stuff at some point.  We are discovering that social environmental stimuli (i.e. hyper-environmentals at school, home, and the community) play a profound role in these conditions, whatever is amiss in a child's wiring.  For a collection of current thinking, see Thomas E. Brown, Attention-Deficit Disorders and Cormorbidities in Children, Adolescents, and Adults (American Psychiatric Press, 2000).  Dr. Brown is at Yale's Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders.

The World’s Fastest Neurologist
Doing his medicine all along, Roger Bannister was the first runner in the world to break the four minute barrier on May 6, 1954 at Oxford.  As a physician and scientist, he had minutely researched the mechanical aspects of running and developed training procedures built around his knowledge of the body.  (Read about his training methods at Nevada Track Stats.) Later at the British Empire Games, he bested John Landy, an Australian who had broken his record not long after the Oxford race.  His autobiography, The First Four Minutes, was published in 1955, and later re-issued as Four Minute Mile

On the fiftieth anniversary of his run, the BBC asked him if the victory was the most significant event of his life.  He replied, no.  “He rather saw his subsequent forty years of practicing as neurologist and some of the new procedures he introduced as being more significant.” 

Today, Sir Roger Bannister is Director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London and is editor of Autonomic Failure, a textbook on clinical disorders of the autonomic nervous system.  As well, he is editor/author, along with Lord Walter Russell Brain, of Brain and Bannister’s Clinical Neurology. He withdrew from private practice and limited himself to research after a serious auto accident which also ended his running. This was in 1975, the year in which Queen Elizabeth knighted him.  His other books include Fair Play

In an interview, he summed up his research in “The Academy of Achievement”

At that stage there were no methods of testing for diseases of the autonomic nervous system.  We saw all kinds of patients who might have these kinds of diseases and created a battery of tests.  At the same time, the method of assaying chemicals like noradrenaline that are released by nerve endings were being developed, so one had a direct biochemical way of measuring the activity of this system.  I developed it with colleagues in London at the same time that NIH in Bethesda were also doing it.  I was near the leading edge, and set up Autonomic Research Society.  Now there are similar research societies in the United State and other countries.  At this time I was traveling very widely and speaking at medical conferences on these areas, and I wrote the first textbook on diseases of the autonomic nervous system.  It’s now in its fourth edition.”  (12/7/05)

Andrew Weil
There's broad enthusiasm now about Dr. Weil, who once operated at the margins, but he's now reached the stage of being interviewed by Larry King.  He combines traditional medicine and alternative medicine, with particular emphasis on eating right.   Check out Ask Dr. Weil online.  Two of his current books are:

Crick and Consciousness
Crick’s last paper before his death in 2004 proposes to explain the neurological basis of consciousness.  See The Economist, July 30, 2005, p. 71.  Along with collaborator Christof Koch  of the California Institute of Technology, he published his thesis in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  “The part of the brain” that caught their interest was “the claustrum, a thin sheet of grey matter that lies concealed beneath part of the cortex….”  In effect, they found that all regions of the cortex are tied together to the claustrum, so that sundry messages could be tied together there in a unified whole—consciousness.  Of course, now the thesis has to be proven.  See more on this and Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis at
ast.html.  (9/14/05)

Hot Wired: Double Brained
“Two brains are better than one,” and it takes at least two to keep men in motion, “one at the top of the spinal cord and the hidden but powerful grain in the gut known as the enteric nervous system” (“The Other Brain, the One with Butterflies, Also Deals with Many Woes,” The New York Times, August 23, 2005,  pp. D5 and D8).  The close interrelationship between the two suggests that brain mood can strongly affect digestion, and, in turn, the digestive process has side effects in brain process.  Dr. Michael D. Gershon, author of The Second Brain and chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia, “coined the term ‘second brain’ in 1996.”  See book abstract at   

“The enteric nervous system was first described in 1921 by Dr. J.N. Langley, a British physician who believed that it was one of three parts … of the automatic nervous system, which controls involuntary behaviors like breathing and circulation.”  Dr. Gershon revived his thinking and was widely mocked at first.  To learn about Langley and receptors, see; also, see

“It turns out that irritable bowel syndrome, like depression, is at least in part a function of changes in the serotonin system.  In this case, it is too much serotonin rather than too little.  …  People with irritable bowel syndrome to not have enough SERT, so they wind up with too much serotonin floating around, causing diarrhea” (i.e., serotonin transporter).  The presence of the “second brain” plays a significant part in a range of both digestive and psychological disorders.   

The identification of “two brains” is rife with implications.  Not only does it further our understanding of the direct collaboration between brain/neural activity and other bodily functions, but it also makes us begin to view distributed intelligence as a human trait—and a clear model of how computer systems should operate.  Centralization in computerdom not only creates overload but it makes the system very vulnerable to attacks from outside agents.  (8/31/05)

Déjà vu All Over Again
“[N]ew research on memory has opened a promising window on the phenomenon, providing both a possible explanations for the sensation and novel ways to create and  measure it.”  Dr. Alan Brown reviews the history of the ‘déjà vu’ field in The Déjà vu Experience:  Essays in Cognitive Psychology.  “Déjà vu appears to be more common when people are exhausted or stressed, conditions that are known to cloud short- and long-term memory….”  The same conditions can give vent to “jamais vu,” the condition where familiar objects seem totally unfamiliar.  Basically data unconsciously imprinted on the brain at some point can make a scene or experience seem very familiar at a later date, even if one has not really encountered the scene or experience before.  For some of us, however, life is full of “presque vu,” a state when you get old enough and so full of extraneous data that everything seems like you may have seen it, almost seen it, but you are not quite sure.

Retrofitting the Brain
Keep Your Brain Alive, by Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin (Workman, 1999) looks like pop self-help literature, but it is backed up by reasonably serious science.   Exercising the brain seems to keep it alive, stimulating, amongst other things, the same hippocampus that we mention in "Swollen Brains" in Wit and Wisdom. Apparently, the key to brain activity and memory is enhancing connections between elements of the brain, just as computer design people are now enhancing connections between the memory and the other parts of the computer.  Check out the book's website to read more about it.

Preventing Preventive Herbal Medicine
The biggest contribution of the medical establishment to herbal medicine seems to be to warn us off the herbs.  Such seems to have been the thrust of a recent confab at Chapel Hill's University of North Carolina, called "The Efficacy and Safety of Medicinal Herbs" (see Denise Grady's article in The New York Times, March 7, 2000, pp.D1 & D4). Of course, the article wryly notes that the medicinal herb industry flourishes in spite of the FDA, the medical community, etc.  Like Linux, Harry Potter, and the massive cult religions infiltrating China, herbalism refuses to be contained. 

Sorrowfully, the practice of botanical medicine in this country has not advanced very far, mainly because no one has figured out how to make big enough bucks off of natural remedies, many of which work more miracles than those ginned up in the labs of the world's pillpushers.

For those who want to probe this subject, we have always recommended Dr. Jim Duke, a retired Department of Agriculture scientist who got all this going on government time.  As you have witnessed time and time again, some of our best innovations come from one outpost of government, only to be smothered by another agency that is feeling very territorial.

The prolific Duke has written widely; several books he's authored or contributed to are cited below.  See also his Nature's Herbs website and his Mini-Course in Medical Botany.

Best Fat Cat's Diet
I first began to take note of Dr. Atkins three years ago when a company founder came to a meeting without his pudginess.   He'd tried everything to lose weight without success.  Atkins does work for these type A, overweight, no exercise, workaholic, travelling mini-magnates.  I've seen it time and time again. Read it all in the following books:

Basically, it's lots of meat and fat plus no carbohydrates with some vitamins thrown in to compensate for the un-balanced diet.  We're not reommending the diet; in fact, we lose weight the old-fashioned way: we burn it.  But Dr. Atkins does work for the hyper.   

Men of Conviction
The numbers of Americans behind bars and out on parole has become simply staggering.  The cost of our prisons and of so many wasted lives is as incomprehensible as that of our broken healthcare system.  Nearly 6.9 million people, or 3.2% of our population, are doing time  Four million-plus are on probation, and about 775,000 are on parole.  The number of women parolees has risen dramatically in parallel with  the rise in women involved in serious crimes.  See The New York Times, July 26, 2004, p. A10.  This would suggest that we require new ways of integrating crime doers into our economy—whether they are on the loose or are behind bars.   

A recent book, Miracle at Sing Sing, by Ralph Blumenthal, deals with one of the pioneers of more enlightened incarceration.  Lewis E. Lawes headed Sing Sing from 1919 to 1941, and he brought some real changes to the system.  ”Men who took human life and served time are the best behaved and best trusted in Sing Sing,” claimed Lawes.  Indeed, very few murderers who were paroled ever returned to prison.  See The New York Times, July 27, 2004, p. B8.  Lawes apparently showed that tough love could work out very well even with the most hardened of criminals, the very types who were sent to Sing Sing. 

Coming of Age in Arabia
As we have said previously, true advances in the Arabic and Moslem worlds will have to arise from the liberation of women, who are second class non-citizens throughout the Middle East   See our 30 October 2002 Letter from the Global Province, “Falling off the Map,” and Big Ideas, item 137, “Arabic Women’s News Service.”   Little bits of emancipation are happening, without much help from the West.  

Most recently, The Economist, June 19,2004, pp. 26-8, in “Out of the Shadows, into the World,” comments on their women’s emergence.  For instance, 55% of  Saudi Arabia’s university students are now women, and this is characteristic of  female educational progress in  the region.  Female life expectancy is rising, and birthrates are falling, allowing women more time for other activities.  In halting ways, they are making occasional progress in both the political and business spheres. 

Barbara Ehrenreich of The New York Times on July 29, 2004, p. A27 recognizes the relationship between the status of Arab women and terrorism.  “So here in one word is my new counterterrorism strategy for Kerry: feminism.”  Downtrodden women are the biggest emblem of the medieval thinking ruling Arabia.  Bringing the region into the 20th or 21st centuries would do much to end the standoff between the West and the Middle East. 

Most recently, the plight of women in Saudi Arabia and, conversely, the threat emancipated women pose to extremist male Arabs, has been dramatized by a much noticed book, Inside the Kingdom, by Carmen bin Laden, ex-wife of Osama’s older brother Yeslam.  Educated in the West as a liberal Moslem, she sweltered under the restrictions of life in Saudi Arabia.  A Swiss divorce saved her and her daughters from the stranglehold of life in the oil kingdom.



Andrea Camilleri Snack Thief – 2005 (08-04-10)

Andrea Camilleri –The Wings of the Sphinx – 2009 (06-30-10)

David Lodge – Thinks – 2001 (06-30-10)

John Mortimer - A Rumpole Christmas - 2009 (01-06-10)

Barbara Ehrenreich – Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America – 2009 (10-14-09)

B. Peterson – Prayers for Peace – 2004 (09-30-09)

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith – 2008 – Deborah Heiligman (05-20-09)

Dressed for Death – 2008 – Donna Leon (05-06-09)

Donna Leon - About Face (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries) - 2010 - (8/28/13)

Saving Stuff
We’re working up to a conversation with Don Williams, author of Saving Stuff, a how-to which tells you how to take care of everything you’ve had around the house for too long.  We’re betting that he has some old money clips somewhere.  Now he’s not to be confused with Don Williams, the country Western singer from Texas who specializes in happiness.

Best Ten-Pound Christmas Gift
We don't know what this book actually weighs, but it is indeed heavy.  It's Alan Fletcher's The Art of Looking Sideways, sort of his collection of sayings and truncated thoughts -- many bits of this and that to which he tries to bring some organization.  It is mordant, perhaps, never quite funny or philosophically assured, much in the vein of the modern English sensibility.  Fletcher was founding partner of Pentagram, once arguably the world's greatest graphic design firm.  He's a chap who likes to turn a phrase, the hallmark, actually, of the most interesting designers: in the U.S., you will find an occasional design word in the South or Southwest, but not in the rest of the country.  Having been through most of the book, even the small print and other challenges to the reader, we recommend : "Civilization is chaos taking a rest"; "I always and assumed that cliché was a suburb of Paris, until I discovered it was a street in Oxford"; and "If you don't know where you are going all roads lead there."  We hope the next edition has an index.

Talk a Good Game
We recommend that leaders of any stripe be able to talk a good golf game, even if they can't play.  To this end, you will want to read the hilarious new book by William Geist, formerly the New York Times' best feature writer, now a devilishly funny voice for the networks.  In his Fore! Play, he tells you about his misadventures in the BGA (the Bad Golfers Association) and other dead ends in his year long effort to sort of learn golf.  Although Amazon doesn't have a print copy of this text in stock (for some odd reason), you might take a look at some of Geist's other works, including Little League Confidential: One Coach's Completely Unauthorized Tale of Survival and The Big Five Oh!  Fearing, Facing, and Fighting Fifty

The Romance of Golf
The game of golf has a romance and mystery about it that puts all other sports in its shadow.  It is the stuff of myth, easily woven into books and films.  Michael Murphy, the eminence behind Esalen Institute, the parapsychology schlock tank on the shores of the Pacific—in its fun, pre-business days as Big Sur or Slate’s Hot Springs, this was just a nice hippie hangout where you could take in the hot springs, do yoga with the son of a Chinese banker, and eat a fine loaf of freshly baked bread—has a fair amount of Barnum and Bailey in him, and, caught by the sport, he conjured up an amusing book called Golf in the Kingdom that’s a blend of pure yarn, pseudo-philosophy, and wispy mysticism.  Then there’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, a Robert Redford movie where a local boy from Savannah who is recovering from the horrors of World War I beats out Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, the kings of golf in his day, having rediscovered his swing at the urgings of a gypsy coach.  A movie closer to the spirit of our own times called Tin Cup finds a washed up pro named Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy conquering the hearts of the crowd and playing a storied round of golf, even though he is beaten by his slick, calculating, play-it-safe friend Simms, who is the million-dollar TV athlete McAvoy will never be.  McAvoy loses the battle, but wins the war—and the girl. 

If you ever have walked the right course, say the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts ( outside Boston in the Fall, and seen the birds overhead, and felt happily alone with your thoughts, you can feel why golf is a sport apart, even when you are not playing it.  You are never playing against some other golfer: you are in a contest with yourself or the gods. 

Global Golf Bubbles
You thought financial bubbles only affected stock markets, the tulip trade, and Bordeaux wines.  But there's a worldwide golf bubble, as sports journalists are discovering:

a. Thomas L. Friedman, quoting J.L. Koo Jr. of the Taiwan Golf Association: "'There are too many courses....  Look, they may have 1.2 billion people, but they only have a few hundred golfers.  ... First, [the Chinese] have to get cars, then they can play golf.'" See "Fine China," Golf Digest, June 2001, pp. 182-86.

b. David Owen: "My trip was ... a junket--a journalistic outing whose putative subject is also its financial sponsor.  In this case, however, the host was ... a developing country whose place in the world has been influenced for decades by its unlikely relationship with the game of golf.  Hassan II viewed golf not only as a palliative to the tedium of absolute power but also as a means of ingratiating his small country with the United States."  See Swinging in Morocco: Golf Diplomacy and the Last North African Kingdom," New Yorker, May 21, 2001, pp. 52-58.  Owen is a great writer, incidentally.  See, for example, My Usual Game: Adventures in Golf and The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf's Most Prestigious Tournament.

Black on Black Comedy
"I sincerely believe that if you think there's a solution, you're part of the problem."

"The Comic wants to be known as a real funny guy.  But the language of comedy is fairly grim and violent. . . .  After all, what does a comic worry most about?   Dying!  He doesn't want to die." 

-- George Carlin, from Brain Droppings (Hyperion, 1997).  

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