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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Joel Migdal on the Historical Contexts of The Present-Day Middle East

Joel Migdal, Shifting Sands

Joel Migdal, author of Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East, recently appeared on the podcast This is Hell!, to provide some historical context to recent events in the Middle East.

In this wide-ranging conversation that starts in the Cold War and winds past the Arab Spring, Migdal discusses the Sunni-Shia-irreconcilability myth, how the creation of Israel and the growth of Arab nationalism shaped the post-WW2 landscape, how monarchies, republics and non-state actors are shifting the regional power dynamics and why new maps won’t save the Middle East, but neither will American presidents.

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

An Interview with John Haller, author of Shadow Medicine

“The question at hand is not only whether conventional and unconventional therapies can stand on their own self-authenticating authority, but whether it is possible to modify the context of these two opposing camps into something both can benefit from sharing. To date, there is no hard-wired connection, but the bridge between them is nowhere as long, nor is the chasm beneath them as deep as it once appeared.”—John S. Haller Jr.

John Haller, Shadow MedicineThe following is an interview with John S. Haller Jr, author of Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies. For more on the book, read John Haller’s essay The Medical Challenge:

Q: In Shadow Medicine, you use the term conventional medicine. What do you mean by that?

John Haller Jr.: Conventional (or reductionist) medicine identifies statistical baselines against which to measure its therapies, looking to physiological, pathological, biochemical, and molecular processes derived from physical matter and to treatment based on the calculus of probabilities. That is to say, conventional medicine draws its authority from the clinical trials and laws embedded in the natural sciences. At its best, conventional medicine encourages a healthy skepticism and urges various forms of sampling, followed by repeated experimentation to reaffirm a hypothesis. Its identity is thus based on the unambiguous application of normative science whose laws interpret the body as a materialistic system that can be reduced and analyzed according to its component parts.

Q: You seem to suggest, however, that conventional medicine has limits? How so?

JH: While conventional medicine continues to provide the most credible information for justifying a clinical judgment, its ultimate value remains uncertain because much of what happens in a clinical trial fails to capture the myriad of variables that affect the physician/patient encounter. For this and other reasons, the clinical trial remains an imperfect tool.

Calibrating the outcome of a medical procedure or the efficacy of a pharmacologic treatment defies certitude insofar as the organic side of medicine tends to be infused with psychotherapeutic interventions—some intended and, others, hidden. This suggests that conventional medicine has overestimated the value of the clinical trial in resolving the challenges presented in medicine and that more creative efforts are needed that compare “whole treatments.”

Q: How does conventional medicine contrast from complementary and alternative medicine?

JH: Today’s complementary and alternative healers focus their attention on forces or energies that, although undetectable by the tools of science, are thought to be real. Such phrases as “paradigm change,” “probability waves,” “string theory,” “chaos theory,” “new physics,” “ectoplasm,” “chakras,” and “spirit-release therapy” are used to anoint beliefs wholly distinct from empirically-based laboratory science. Challenging the discrete boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity by including consciousness in the reframing of reality, today’s unconventional healers insist that “life forces” can be transmitted or channeled into the patient to mediate physical, mental, or emotional needs. This secularized notion of body, mind, and spirit forms the basis of homeopathy, psychic healing, crystal healing, reiki, light therapy, acupuncture, qigong, aromatherapy, distant healing, transcendental meditation, therapeutic touch, and other paranormal healing systems.

(more…)

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Danilo Kiš

Danilo Kiš

“Art is the terrain where you are absolutely free and where you can explore all life’s beauties and all life’s vices without being punished. There’s a simple explanation for this: art is a replacement for real life. Art is the opposite of life. A normal person doesn’t write books.” — Danilo Kiš

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! Today we continue our series of Thursday Fiction Corner posts highlighting conversations from the Dalkey Archive backlist (so far we’ve featured Nicholas Mosley and Carlos Fuentes) with a conversation with Danilo Kiš and Brendan Lemon, which took place in 1984. Kiš was a Yugoslavian and Serbian writer known for combining narrative experiment and humor with the deadly serious realities of life in Eastern Europe in the mid and late twentieth century. In their interview, Lemon and Kiš discuss Kiš’s reading habits, his love of the technical aspects of writing, and “the problems of ethics and aesthetics.” Read the full conversation on the Dalkey Archive Press website.

Brandon Lemon: The act of reading is very important in Hourglass, especially the relationship between reading and dreaming. At one point you write that in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud didn’t pay enough attention to the reading we do before sleep. Do you read a great deal? What kinds of books do you read at bedtime?

Danilo Kiš: I read a great deal. And I generally dream about what I read more than about what I experience otherwise. I think that that would also have been the case for the father in Hourglass. Reading is also depicted in Garden, Ashes in the passage where the child reads a fragment from a novel about love. I like novels that work in bits of other books. It’s reassuring to those of us who spend most of our lives reading. It seems perfectly normal to me not only to dream about what one reads but also to insert what one reads into one’s life and one’s work. The relationship of reading to writing and of both to the rest of life is something that I’ve very consciously included in my work.

BL: Let’s get back to your reading.

DK: You know, I’m very lazy. I write little and rarely. But I read all the time, all kinds of things. I’m a big reader of poetry because I consider myself something of a poet manque. Technically, I know exactly what to do, and I like translating poetry. But I realized that I can better express myself in prose. (more…)

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Interview with Naomi Oreskes, author of The Collapse of Western Civilization

Interview Naomi OreskesThe following is an interview with Naomi Oreskes, coauthor of, with Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future:

Question: In The Collapse of Western Civilization you approach climate change as a fictionalized future historian of science. How does science fiction in this form provide a new way to look at climate change?

Naomi Oreskes: Scientists keep talking about disruptive climate change as something in the future, but the reality is that it is already underway. The post hoc voice (ironically) gives us a powerful way to talk about the present. It also allows us to convey what is at stake, not just for polar bears, or people in Bangladesh, but for us—our safety, our security, our way of life, even our national identity.

Q: You and Erik are both historians of science, how does an historical perspective help citizens and policymakers better understand the issues surrounding climate change?

Oreskes: In contrast to scientists, historians reject reductionist approaches. Viewing climate change as historians, we are able to consider not just the scientific dimensions, but also the political, the cultural, and the ideological aspects.

Q: What is the relationship between our current market-based economy and climate change? Is it the problem or can it offer a solution?

Oreskes: Both. A major point of the story is that the climate change was a market failure, but one that could have been fixed had people not been gripped by magical thinking.

Q: What are the threats to democracy and personal freedom posed by climate change and its effects?

Oreskes: Disruptive climate change threatens democracy—threatens democratic institutions—and personal freedom, because natural disasters require massive governmental responses, and invite the federal government to usurp local and individual authority.

Q: Recently, we’ve seen movements on college campuses to divest from fossil fuels gaining momentum. Do you think this will likely have an impact on climate change and the politics surrounding it?

Oreskes: Absolutely. It’s having an impact already.

Q: Finally, do you think climate change will be a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential campaign?

Oreskes: We’re historians. We don’t predict the future. At least, not unless it’s in fiction.

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Interview with Alfredo Morabia, author of Enigmas of Health and Disease

Enigmas of Health and DiseaseThe following is an interview with Alfredo Morabia, author of Enigmas of Health and Disease: How Epidemiology Helps Unravel Scientific Mysteries. You can also read Morabia’s blog post Michelle Obama and Epidemiology: An Inspiring Example

Question Your book offers a fascinating and frequently surprising history of epidemiology. How does our understanding of this history help us confront contemporary issues relating to medicine and public health?

Alfredo Morabia: If I have to isolate one key lesson of this historical voyage, it is that society’s success in confronting health issues depends on its ability to use epidemiology to identify medical and public health interventions that work. This was the great discovery of the 17th century, and it finally stopped and reversed the inexorable and millenary progression of the great epidemic diseases.

Q: As you looked back at the history, were there particular events or moments that you found particularly surprising and perhaps changed the way you think about epidemiology?

AM: I had always associated the history of epidemiology mostly with the history of public health but this is not true. The history of epidemiology belongs just as much to the history of clinical medicine. Group comparisons were used to assess the efficacy of treatments by clinical doctors throughout the 350 years of existence of epidemiology.

Q: Your book stresses the importance of group comparisons. Why is this so central to epidemiology?

AM: Comparison is the basic tool of science. In epidemiology, by comparing groups of people we can learn whether a specific drug works, whether an exposure is beneficial or deleterious, or whether a screening test can prolong life. Groups are predictable and comparable; individuals are not.

(more…)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Interview with Steven Cohen, Author of Understanding Environmental Policy

Steven A Cohen

“You can’t build a gated community to keep out bad air.”—Steven Cohen

In a recent interview with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Steven Cohen discussed the second edition of his book Understanding Environmental Policy.

In the interview, Cohen considers the distinctively interdisciplinary nature of environmental policy and how that is both a positive and a negative:

One of the things that has always struck me about environmental policy is that it’s very interdisciplinary. It incorporates law, politics, environmental science, engineering, and more. At the same time, most of the experts only know one field: economists consider the environmental problem one of market failure and engineers think of environmental protection as an issue related to pollution-control technology. I wanted to develop a framework that explicitly looked at all the factors I considered important to environmental policy—the underlying values, science and technology, economics, public policy and management.

Cohen also offers a fascinating overview of how studying the environment has changed over time and the ways in which Bloomberg’s policies in New York underscored these developments:

The environment as an issue has evolved. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries [in the United States], it was Teddy Roosevelt preserving the west, preserving wild areas, and creating national parks. In the 1960s and ’70s it became an issue of public health. People like Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson talked about the spread of toxics through the ecosphere. By the time I got to the EPA in the late 1970s the health aspects of the environment were starting to dominate. And in the last decade, the field of economic development and the environment seem to have combined; we talk about sustainability and protecting the environment because it’s the source of our [collective] wealth.

You can look at [former New York City mayor] Mike Bloomberg as an illustration of this. He’s didn’t enter office as an environmentalist. But in the middle of his first term, his planners said the city will gain a million people by 2030. He quickly understood the impact of that growth on our quality of life and insightfully asked: How does that kind of growth affect the city’s use of energy and water? How will it affect traffic? So Bloomberg developed PlaNYC 2030 [which took these factors into consideration]. A lot of environmental policy is about preserving scarce resources, and in New York City one of the scarcest resources is surface space on streets south of 59th Street.

The field has really morphed over the years. I use the word environment and sustainability almost interchangeably now. We have to preserve the planet because we’re all biological creatures. You can’t build a gated community to keep out bad air.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

An Interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

“Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

Q: In an age of “big data” and “distant reading,” why have you decided to focus on the sentence?

JD: Not so much a choice as a compulsion, I think. Work by new media theorists and literary scholars like Lev Manovich and Franco Moretti is motivated in part by a sense of the insufficiencies of the kind of mainstream historicist literary criticism that predominates inside the academy in the United States. My own dissatisfaction with that kind of criticism increasingly stemmed from the sense I had that the kinds of interpretation I practiced in the classroom were at least as exciting and revealing as anything I was doing in my published scholarship, but that for some reason the professional protocol seemed to be that I couldn’t just “do” that kind of very close work with sentences in print. I’m kicking back against that here, and I’m interested in thinking more about how to explain and defend a methodology that is related to some older kinds of formalism—as practiced by critics like Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovskii—and even to the New Criticism or Cambridge-style practical criticism in the tradition of I. A. Richards, but that also benefits from the insights of other more obviously historicized and politicized schools of criticism.

That is a fancy way, though, of saying that sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Q: You begin the book by acknowledging that you’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature can “teach” us about life. What do we miss out on when we focus on the “lessons” of literature?

JD: That opening is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, in that obviously we do learn things about life from literature, and I have hugely enjoyed books like Alain de Bouton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography and Rebecca Mead’s recent book about a lifetime of reading Middlemarch. But when it’s done with less sensitivity than these authors muster, it often leads to a kind of oversimplification—a lack of attention to what the books are actually doing, how they work—that makes me really annoyed. I will read novels by Austen or Henry James again and again neither because of the psychological insights they offer nor because of how those insights might illuminate aspects of my own experience in the world, but rather because the sentences are utterly ravishing, and because there is nowhere else on earth I can learn the things these books teach about narration and the techniques and conventions by which human experience is translated into language.

(more…)

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

A Conversation With Leslie Pratch, Author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER?

Leslie Pratch

“Effective leaders are likely to act with consistently high integrity and to demonstrate sound, timely judgement when they occupy positions of power…. But every executive is unique … the most striking differences … are in their underlying motivations and their coping tendencies.”–Leslie Pratch

The following is an interview with Leslie Pratch, author of Looks Good on Paper: Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance

Q: How did you first become involved in the role you play for companies now—evaluating candidates for leadership positions?

A: I have been evaluating candidates for leadership positions for more than 15 years. But I didn’t get to this spot by accident; creating the tools and building the capability to do this was something I pursued for many years across multiple universities and graduate degrees.

First, I was a graduate student in psychology. As a graduate student, I had the chance to help set up a talent program for high potential professionals at Arthur Andersen. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I researched if it were possible to predict the emergence of leaders in a high performing group, using a psychological approach I was developing. It turned out that it was possible. After graduate school, I worked with State Farm on the development of a competency framework for their whole organization. That led me to the development of my own competency framework, which I use in my work today with my clients. I also got an MBA, after I had begun evaluating executives, to give me better tools to understand the issues my clients and their candidates face.

Q: How does holding an MBA help you in your work?

A: Having a strong understanding of business allows me to understand at a sophisticated level what my clients are trying to do with their companies and investments. I can understand and think critically about the investment thesis, understand the strategy of the firm, and see the implications of all of that for the job that will be ahead for the candidates I’m evaluating. Having a strong understanding of business lets me be a business discussion partner as well as a skilled psychologist.

Q: Why do you continue to track candidates for months and years after they have secured the position they were being considered for?

A: These are long-term jobs. The usual investment horizon for my clients is three-to-five years, and most public company boards give top managers some time before deciding whether a new CEO is a success (with rare, glaring exceptions when someone is clearly failing). Since I am not predicting how a candidate will perform on a specific task, but rather how the candidate will handle the complex job of leading an organization over time, we have to let time pass to see what happens. (more…)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

New York City as the Capital of Capital — Steven Jaffe and Jessica Lautin on The Brian Lehrer Show

Today, we offer another interview with the authors of Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012.

Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin recently appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the book and the frequently contentious history of banks in New York City. Among other issues, Jaffe and Lautin discussed why New York City became the “capital of capital,” surpassing Philadelphia and other cities; how New York City became not only the center of banking but also the center of protests against capitalism from the union movement to Occupy Wall Street; how immigration gave rise to savings banks; and whether or not New York City will remain the “capital of capital”

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Interview with Jessica Lautin, Co-Author of Capital of Capital

Capital of Capital “Banks are not a monolith; and their functions have been extraordinarily diverse—worthy of both ire and praise.”—Jessica Lautin

The following is an interview with Jessica Lautin, co-author of Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012

Question: What is Capital of Capital about?

Jessica Lautin: Capital of Capital examines how New York’s banks became central first to the city’s, then the nation’s, and ultimately the world’s economy. And it’s about the symbiotic relationship between the development of New York’s banks and the city itself.

Q: Why is it important?

JL: You can’t understand the growth of New York City without understanding the growth of its banks. There are excellent books and articles out there on specific periods in this great narrative—on Alexander Hamilton, the Gilded Age, the Depression, the fiscal crisis, and of course the Great Recession. But this book is the first to cover the full sweep. By looking at this long history you can see certain themes, trends and topics emerge: the cycles of booms and busts; the denial of and access to credit; the relationship between New York’s banks and government; the creation by New York’s banks of new financial instruments and strategies; and banks’ investment in the infrastructure of the city.

Q: The exhibition that preceded the book was on view at the Museum of the City of New York in 2012. Why did the City Museum decide to cover this topic at this time?

JL: Citigroup was interested in sponsoring an exhibition about the history of banking in Gotham to honor the 200th anniversary of the founding of the City Bank of New York in 1812. This idea dovetailed perfectly with the Museum’s mission to connect New York City’s past, present, and future. We began planning this exhibition when the city and nation were still reeling from the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement had just made the news. Everything was still so fresh that we wondered if the opening of the exhibition might even draw protestors. (It didn’t). All of the headlines echoed those that appeared in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries: outrage at the city’s banks and attacks on its wealthiest citizens; calls for tighter regulation; announcements of new forms of currency; concerns about banks leaving town. We covered this history in the exhibition while also leaving visitors with a question about the future: Would New York City continue to be the capital of global finance? Newly generated and designed infographics in the last section (that also appear in the book) helped visitors to come up with an answer—graphics on such topics as: banks and the labor force; assets of commercial banks; and loans by foreign bank branches. Then there was an opportunity to register an answer in a survey programmed on old ATMs.

Q: Banks today and throughout NYC’s history have been the frequent targets of criticism. How fair is this?

JL: It’s true that banks have been the target of vitriol since their founding. Like the Occupy Wall Street protestors, John Adams attacked them as corrupt and elitist, calling bankers “swindlers and thieves.” It makes sense, and yes, it’s fair, that Americans have always been suspicious of the institutions that pool, grow and distribute money and credit. There are many instances throughout the nearly 230 years when banks have willfully ignored excessive risk to themselves and their customers in the interest of profit. If in 2008 it was the packaging and selling of subprime mortgages, in 1857 it was speculation in railroad securities. Also, before legislation forced banks to change their lending and hiring policies in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, many banks systematically denied employment and credit to African Americans, women, gays and lesbians. And this denial of credit had profound and lasting effects, for example, on the segregation of neighborhoods. By subsidizing the building of single-family homes for whites in the suburbs while refusing home loans to blacks and Hispanics in poorer neighborhoods, banks perpetuated poverty and racism.

(more…)

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Interview with Ole Mouritsen, Coauthor of Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste

Umami, Ole Mouritsen

“Knowing about umami will not only help us to produce better-tasting meals but will greatly contribute to re-establishing a culture around the communal meals.”—Ole Mouritsen

The following is an interview with Ole Mouritsen, co-author of Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste:

Question: How was umami discovered?

Ole Mouritsen: The taste has always been with us, but it was only given the name umami in 1909 when the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda discovered the substance (glutamate) that make the Japanese soup broth, dashi, so delicious. Umami is a contraction of the Japanese expression umai, which means “delicious,” and mi, which means “essence,” “essential nature,” “taste,” or “flavor.”

Q: What is the importance of umami and how does it change the way we think about taste?

OM: As a basic taste, umami is important for the flavor of food as well as for stimulating appetite, controlling satiety, and hence regulating food intake. Due to its complex interaction with other tastes, e.g., by enhancing sweet and salty and suppressing bitterness, umami will remind us about flavor being a multimodal sensation. Knowing about umami will not only help us to produce better-tasting meals but will greatly contribute to re-establishing a culture around the communal meals.

Q: How can it or should it change the way we eat and prepare food?

OM: The most important aspect of umami is the fact that it builds on a synergistic effect brought about by two components in the food: glutamate that elicits basal umami and nucleotides that enhance the sensation of glutamate. It needs two to tango. In the classical Japanese umami-rich soup broth, dashi, the two components come from seaweeds and fish or shiitake, respectively. It is precisely the same synergy we know so well from pairing eggs with bacon, cheese with ham, vegetables with meat, etc. Knowing about this synergistic principle will guide us to change the way we eat and the way we compose a meal.

(more…)

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Mitchell Stephens on Why Wisdom is the Key to the Future of Journalism

“We need journalists who … are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.”—Mitchell Stephens

Beyond News, Mitchell StephensIn a recent interview with The American Prospect, Mitchell Stephens discussed his new book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism. Stephens argues that journalism needs to move away from an emphasis on “objective” journalism and instead privilege analysis and what he considers “wisdom”:

Q: You say “wisdom journalism” is the key to journalism’s future. What is “wisdom journalism”?

Mitchell Stephens: There was 150-year period—a century and a half, give or take a decade—in which it was possible to make a big business out of selling news. That’s the era into which all of us were born and many of us spent a good part of our careers as journalists. We developed certain assumptions based on that economic fact. But now that the economics have shifted, we must re-evaluate and learn to live in an era in which it may no longer be possible to make a good living just by selling news. News may go back to what it once was, which is something that people exchange for free. Journalists may have to go back to what they once were, which is people who led in wisdom, who led in insight, who led in intelligence to account for what was and is going on.

My argument is that we need journalists who, unlike the characterization of journalism in the 20th century, who are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.

Q: Rather than simply inform, you argue that journalism’s goal should be to transform how we think, to lead “wiser citizens and therefore wiser politics.”

MS: Right. For a long time, journalism didn’t aspire high enough as a profession or craft. I think the mere transcription of facts, of quotations, which has been a lot of journalism during this century-and-a-half period, is just not enough. It’s done some wonderful things: It brought down a president of the United States; it exposed various kinds of corrupt behavior. There have been incredible exposés that have happened just because someone dug up and put down the facts. That’s valuable for sure. But I also sense that we need now is for journalists to explain significance and what we can learn from events, not just what someone said today or this morning.

Q: Sites like Wonk Blog and Vox offer general information along with explanations of complex issues. Do you see sites like Vox as the future?

MS: I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Vox.com. It has two of my favorite young, contemporary journalists on it—Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. They’re brilliant, and provide precisely the sort of insight I’m looking for. I’ve been a regular reader of the both of them.

On the other hand, their favorite word is “explanation.” Obviously, explanation is a happy thing and they have all these “note cards” to provide background to their stories. I tweeted, “Is one of our best journalists doing journalism for dummies?” That’s overly harsh, clearly. But my concern is that there’s an element of condescension. It’s sort of “Oh, we have to make sure you understand the background and if we don’t give it to you may not understand.” Sure, there’s a lot I don’t understand and a lot people don’t understand. But we’re pretty good at teaching ourselves nowadays. I’m not sure the best thing the Ezra Kleins and Matt Yglesiases of the world can do for us now is to spoon-feed us background. I want them ahead of the news, in the really complicated stuff. I want them providing insight more than explanation. With that caveat, both those guys and the people who work with them are great examples of the wisdom journalism I’m calling for.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Arnold van Huis Discusses Eating Insects with Nature

The Insect Cookbook

In a recent interview with Nature, Arnold van Huis discussed eating insects and the recently published The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet:

Question: How did you get involved in entomophagy?

Arnold van Huis: I’m a tropical entomologist, very much involved in pest management and biological control in the tropics. Locusts are one of my specialized areas. I had a sabbatical and I spent that studying the cultural aspects of insects in Africa. So I visited about 24 countries, interviewing a lot of Africans about insects as medicine, insects in proverbs, et cetera, but often half of my interviews were about edible insects. In the beginning for me it was kind of a hobby. But when we started to look at it more seriously, we thought, ‘Well, this is a very good alternative to what we are currently doing’.

Q: What excites you the most about the upcoming meeting [a conference opening on 14 May in Wageningen]?

AVH: It’s the first time that everybody in this field will come together on a world scale. Insects are still more or less considered a poor man’s diet. It still has that reputation. In the tropics they don’t talk about it, because they know that in the Western world people consider it primitive. I also found that a lot of people say, ‘When we have more wealth, we will switch to a Western diet’ — the hamburger instead of the insects. And I hope we can change this perception of insects as food during this conference.

Q: Is the scientific field of entomophagy growing?

AVH: In the Western world it was rather limited ten years ago. I was one of the few who really started to work on it. There are people who have done quite some research on it — mainly in the fields of ethno-biology and ethno-entomology. But it was considered a peculiar habit of people in the tropics. Never was it looked at as something we could do as well.

The last ten years I’ve seen an exponential increase in interest. When we published the book last year, it had 6 million downloads. It just shows the tremendous interest.

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Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Interview with Robert Sitton, author of Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

The following is an interview with Robert Sitton, author of Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film:

Question: Who was Iris Barry?

Robert Sitton: Iris Barry (1895-1969) was the self-educated daughter of a rural British brass founder and a fortune-teller from the Isle of Man. After being kicked out of convent school, she began writing poetry and in 1916 attracted the attention of Ezra Pound, whose correspondence with her contains much of his thinking about literature. Pound introduced her to the Vorticist painter and novelist, Wyndham Lewis, with whom she had two children in 1919 and 1920. Lewis took film seriously, at a time when it was viewed at best as an amusement. Iris immersed herself in the movies and was hired to write film criticism for the Spectator, which under the proprietorship of St. Loe Strachey, was read by many people influential in London culture. With a group of these leaders in 1925 Iris founded the London Film Society, which showed notable films in a context in which they could be discussed and understood—often with the filmmaker present. This provided a model for the film component of the Museum of Modern Art, which Iris co-founded with her husband, John Abbott, in 1935. Barry led MoMA’s film department until 1950.

Q: What is her significance to the art of film?

A: Iris is the architect of the infrastructure of film as an art form, including its needs for preservation, presentation, study and appreciation. She is notable among early film theorists for identifying the differences between film and the other arts, an argument she outlined in her 1926 book, Let’s Go to the Pictures. Others tried to justify film an art by pointing out its similarities to established art forms. She also set the example for establishing film as a cultural resource, by founding the first major museum film program at MoMA, teaching one of the first courses in film with artists present at Columbia University, distributing films to college and university campuses along with study materials, and guaranteeing the preservation of the art form by founding the International Federation of Film Archives in 1938. She served as FIAF’s Life President. Subsequently, the New York Film Festival was dedicated to her in 1962 and in 1967 the American Film Institute was founded on principles exemplified by Barry’s career. Much of what we take for granted about film culture today can be traced back to her.

Q: Given the richness, importance, not to mention drama of Iris Barry’s life, it’s surprising there’s not been a biography of her. What explains the lack of scholarly or biographical attention to her?

A: Iris Barry lived her life in three countries, first in England, then in America, and finally in France. It took travel to all three to find documents of her personal and professional life, distributed among a bewildering variety of sources, from manuscript archives to personal collections.

Iris never returned to live in any of the countries in which she once resided. She did not look back. Nor did she leave an autobiography or any systematic notes. Some of the best sources we have about her came from letters she wrote to people she knew, either charmingly soliciting their assistance, recounting her impressions of people and places, or confiding in them. There are few examples of the latter, since she firmly kept up appearances as a self-contained professional.

Iris’s persona as an educated, articulate English intellectual presents another biographical dilemma. This was the persona she adopted in her professional life, one that led her to describe her aloof moments as those of a “Queen” in the “deep-freeze.” Virtually no one who knew her knew about her past or that she was a self-taught convent dropout. No friend or colleague at MoMA was aware of her humble beginnings or her adventures in Bloomsbury, and even those who helped her did not know they were also assisting two children she had borne with Wyndham Lewis. These things were not mentioned in polite society at the time, and on that custom hangs a feminist lesson. The one person she seemed willing to confide in was the novelist, Edmund Schiddel.

The things Iris chose to keep secret may also have included the fact that she had worked for the government as a spy. When she went abroad in 1936 looking for films for MoMA, the State Department asked her to keep an eye on how Germany was using films in its mobilization effort. Later, after the U.S. entry into the war, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services in support of a propaganda effort to preserve American hegemony in Latin America and facilitated the wartime documentary series, Why We Fight.

All this would seem to be to her credit, except that she found almost any political involvement problematical. Despite her wartime service and her election in 1949 as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, she was interrogated as a suspected Communist by American authorities in Marseilles in the 1950s.

Finally, there is the weight of years since her abrupt departure from New York in 1950. Most of her friends long ago died, and there have been only occasional attempts to reassess her career by scholars. One article in the 1980s was fittingly entitled, “New Light on Iris Barry.” It took me almost thirty years to bring her life into focus, and none of the time was wasted.

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Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Professor Mom! An Interview with the editors of “Mothers in Academia”

Mothers in AcademiaWith Mother’s Day right around the corner, we thought we would shed some light on those mothers who also toil in academia. The following is an interview with Mari Castañeda and Kirsten Isgro, the editors of Mothers in Academia. The interview was originally published in Inside Higher Ed:

Q: What prompted you to write this book?

A: The proposal for this book was inspired by the increasing number of discussions we were both having with colleagues at all levels (students, faculty and staff) about the simultaneous presence and invisibility of mothers in academia. Behind closed doors, many of us were discussing the issues, challenges, joys and promise of working/learning in an academic environment while also caring for children. Yet these conversations were existing outside of the traditional structures of power within our various universities and colleges. The collection thus became an attempt to bear witness to the multiple realities of mothers in academic contexts while also providing a theoretical and empirical grounding for the experiences of women in higher education. We felt this was especially important since women are increasingly becoming an important part of the academic work force as well as the student body. While the project does not valorize women who are parents, it does attempt to address how we as women who are scholar-mothers balance these two roles on a personal and institutional level.

Q: How do you see academe, compared to other parts of society, in terms of being “family friendly”?

A: There seems to be an idealized notion of academe that it is more family-friendly than other parts of society because in many institutions, faculty get summers “off.” While many faculty are not always required to be at the office during the winter and summer breaks, that’s not the case for college staff who have 12-month contracts, and in some cases for student mothers, who must work through the summer to support their families or take classes part-time in order to finish their degrees. Additionally, the increased expectations for revenue generation and “prestigious” scholarly output, for instance, have placed undue pressure on all staff and faculty, making it harder to create, maintain or expand a family-friendly environment, or one that promotes a culture of care. We believe a culture of care is family-centered. It does not minimize excellence; on the contrary, such a culture understands that folks work better when care responsibilities are acknowledged and policies are developed that align family and personal life and work. One thing that became very clear through the process of this book is that we always think about faculty and administrators with regard to these issues, but rarely staff or undergraduate or graduate students. Thus, some sectors of academe experience a more family-friendly environment than others; the policies and expectations are uneven based on position in the higher education hierarchy. It is important to note that while headway in creating and implementing family-friendly policies has been accomplished, but much more can and should be done if academe will continue to be a leader with regards to this issue.

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Monday, April 28th, 2014

A Q&A with Matthew Akester, translator of Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule

Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule

“The main gift of Khetsun’s book, however, is its vivid depiction of the banal horrors; how prisoners were forced to denude the hills around Lhasa to provide their captors with firewood, or carry them piggy-back across icy rivers in winter, or how prisoners’ lives were casually wasted in work accidents, how political campaigns crushed resistance cells inside prisons during the 1962 war, and so on.” – Matthew Akester

Today, we have a Q&A with Matthew Akester, the translator of Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule, Tibetan Tubten Khétsun’s autobiographical account of his time spent in Tibet after the Tibetan people’s uprising of March 10, 1959. In his answers below, Akester describes his history with the project and explains exactly why Khetsun’s book is so important.

Why Khetsun’s book?

It is widely recognised that published accounts of Tibet’s history under Chinese Communist occupation tend to be skewed by the dominant narratives promoted by the CCP and Tibet’s government in exile, both of which are by nature polemical and inadequate. Chinese language accounts are constrained by the ideological rigidity and censorship that prevails within the PRC, while Tibetan language accounts, at least of the period 1958-79, are limited to the memoirs of survivors. Those that have appeared in English have typically been ghost written by sympathetic collaborators seeking to promote the Tibetan cause (with just a few exceptions). As someone who works on modern history primarily from Tibetan language sources, I have tried to review as much of the memoir literature as I can, and that is how I came upon Khetsun’s book. It was first published in the rather drab format used by the exile government press in Dharmshala (1998), under the title ‘A testament of suffering’, suggesting another iteration of the maudlin lament in which exiled survivors of Maoism often frame their stories. Soon after opening the cover, however, I was drawn into an exceptionally detailed and evocative memoir, refreshingly free of self-pity and black-and-white hyperbole. Most of the accounts published by Khetsun’s generation are actually prison memoirs, since that is where the majority of educated Tibetan men spent the years 1959-79, but he was released early and thus in a position to describe the condition of civil society in Lhasa in those years. His language is clear and sympathetic, a pleasure to translate.

How representative is his account?

Khetsun’s family belonged to the minor nobility, and he was groomed to serve the Lhasa government, so he was by Chinese Communist norms a prima facie ‘class enemy’ and prime target of the ‘class struggle’ through which they sought to transform Tibetan society. The quotidien persecution and oppression he describes, however, will be familiar to Tibetans from all social classes and regions who lived through the Maoist era. Khetsun’s anecdotal assertion that two thirds of all adult males were incarcerated during and after the suppression of the 1959 uprising awaits conclusive corroboration, but he also reminds us that Tibetan society was divided into nine social classes by the Communist bureaucracy, of which only the bottom two or three were considered reliable supporters of the Party. This can be readily corroborated, but it raises a question that virtually no Tibetan account of the period has confronted frankly: who were the Tibetan footsoldiers of the occupation, and what motivated them to inflict ‘class struggle’ on their countrymen with such apparent readiness? Khetsun does not confront the question head-on, but offers some fascinating psychological sketches of individuals with conflicted loyalties.

What does it tell us that we did not already know?

Even seasoned and specialist readers will collect new information here. The Hui agitation of 1961, the abandoned proposal to establish the TAR capital in the more temperate climate of Powo in the south-east, the 1968 Tsuklakhang massacre, the mass executions of 1969-70, and the political campaigns of 1973 and ’74 have not been written about before, at least from an eyewitness viewpoint. The main gift of Khetsun’s book, however, is its vivid depiction of the banal horrors; how prisoners were forced to denude the hills around Lhasa to provide their captors with firewood, or carry them piggy-back across icy rivers in winter, or how prisoners’ lives were casually wasted in work accidents, how political campaigns crushed resistance cells inside prisons during the 1962 war, and so on. His images of soldiers destroying harvested swamp grass or hounding invalids from their beds in the middle of the night are in their own way as poignant as the headline images of the Cultural Revolution already known to many readers. (more…)

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes

“For me, life without literature is inconceivable. I think that Don Quixote in a physical sense never existed, but Don Quixote exists more than anybody who existed in 1605. Much more. There’s nobody who can compete with Don Quixote or with Hamlet. So in the end we have the reality of the book as the reality of the world and the reality of history.” – Carlos Fuentes

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! One of the most exciting aspects of working with Dalkey Archive is the opportunity to work with their rich backlist, which includes books by some of the most interesting writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Last week, we featured British author Nicholas Mosley; this week, we are excited to post a conversation between Debra A. Castillo and Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes is a hugely influential author, one of the leading writers associated with the “Latin American Boom” and the winner of the 1987 Miguel de Cervantes Prize. In this interview, posted in full at the Dalkey Archive Press website, Fuentes discusses the political importance of literature to the world in general and to Latin America in particular.

A Conversation with Carlos Fuentes
By Debra A. Castillo
From The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1988, Vol. 8.2

[...]

DC: Do you feel that Latin America, having been relegated to the margins for so long, is now in some way converting itself into a central point of view from which to see other cultures?

CF: The discourse follows this way. When you exercise criticism, you create a culture. There is no modern culture that is acritical, and the criticism of culture in Latin America has permitted Latin Americans to see something very clearly, and it is that in spite of our recurrent political disasters, in spite of our profound political Balkanization and disunity and disgregations of times, we have an extraordinary continuity of culture. Cultural criticism reveals this: that in culture we have great strength, that in culture we have great, great continuity and this is an important thing to know, to understand. First, because when most of the socioeconomic models have just fallen flat on their faces and crumbled during the present crisis, what has remained on its own two feet is what we have created culturally: our poems, our novels, our music, our old traditions, our paintings, our films, our dances….This is what is there, the rest has become sort of a problem; you know, Corn Flakes with lots of milk in it. It isn’t real. What is real, what is standing is the culture.

This is very important because I think we’re headed towards a world in the twenty-first century which is no longer this anachronistic, bipolar world traded by the Yalta agreements with two great powers. It’ll be a world of multipolar, and therefore multicultural, reality. I don’t think you can have a multipolar world unless you have a multicultural world in which the participation of great constellations such as Latin America, Black Africa, the Moslem world, Europe, Japan, China, India will be based on the constellation of culture that they represent, the diversity of culture which represents the multiplicity of power at the same time. So for me, it’s a very, very important subject as we enter the twenty-first century with all the pluses, and now the minuses, that have become evident as this century ends. (more…)

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Nicholas Mosley

Nicholas Mosely

“[O]n the whole, now, I feel very much a loner. There are the few who have something of the same style, and there are the few who have something of the same feeling about life which they want to express; but I don’t know of anyone who’s so involved with connecting the one thing with the other.” – Nicholas Mosley

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! One of the most exciting aspects of working with Dalkey Archive is the opportunity to work with their rich backlist, which includes books by some of the most interesting writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One of the most notable of these writers is Nicholas Mosley, author of (among many other works) Hopeful Monsters, Efforts at Truth: An Autobiography, and Metamorphosis, which will be available in September. In today’s Fiction Corner, we are happy to present an excerpt from a conversation between Mosley and Dalkey Archive Press founder John O’Brien which first appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. You can find the conversation in full on the Dalkey Archive website.

A Conversation with Nicholas Mosley
By John O’Brien
From The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1982, Vol. 2.2

This interview was conducted by mail over a two-year period during 1977 and 1978.

[...]

JOB: I think that you will agree that the concern, both thematic and technical, at the center of your work is that of “opposites.” Do you become conscious of such a concern “after” you have written? That is, I am assuming something here about the creative process: you do not begin with “ideas.” At what point do you discover that this is what you are working with?

NM: Opposites. Impossibilities. I think that this is answered in my long digression for your third question. At some stage in my life I got this obsession with “impossibilities,” not in the first place as an idea but as an experience: love as both creative and destructive: peace being what people said they wanted, but being boring: happiness being what one aimed at, but which could not be held. And together with this, what seemed to be the fact that literature (“good” literature) could only easily deal with life being to do with “failure”—not with life as a successfully going concern. And this being not because writers are perverse, but because there is something deep here in the nature of language. And language of course is representative of something about the way in which “consciousness” or the powers of description of consciousness work. So the effort of imaginative writing becomes that of trying to “say the unsayable.” What else are we trying to do? And what better?

JOB: I have been trying, without much success, to “place” you in a tradition with other moderns. A few names come to mind—Ford (“The Good Soldier”), Flaubert (“Bouvard”), Joyce, O’Brien, Firbank, Henry Green, John Hawkes, Jean Rhys. This may be a question about influences; or, it may be asking you to identify writers with whom you feel in company. I am stuck by the fact that the writers you have mentioned in your letters do not seem similar to you—Fowles, Salinger, and Patrick White.

NM: When I was young William Faulkner was my great love, not just because of the density of style, but because he seemed to be dealing with the question not of “what will happen next” but “what is happening now.” The first Faulkner novel I read was “The Sound and the Fury,” which I got hold of when we liberated a POW camp in Italy in 1944 and I liberated the Red Cross Library. I was about twenty. I had never heard of Faulkner and the book was a knock-out; I’d never heard of anyone writing like this. Not only the style, but the way in which you don’t exactly know what on earth has happened or is happening till about page two hundred—then it all becomes apparent in a blinding flash. The whole book. This seemed to be not only intensely exciting (the wondering for two-hundred pages was exciting) but to be exactly like life. What in god’s name, after all, was I doing aged twenty in Italy in a war? After that I got hold of everything I could of Faulkner’s. On my early romantic/tragic level, I thought the perfect novel was “The Wild Palms.”

My other two loves which came slightly later were Proust and Henry James: Proust because of his specific idea about life being “impossible” except in terms of art and memory; Henry James because although in a way he is dealing with “what will happen next,” his constant subtleties of shifting of his, and his protagonists’, and his readers’ moral attitudes, make it into a question of “what is happening now”—I’m thinking of “The Awkward Age” or “What Masie Knew” or the end of “Wings of the Dove.” All these writers fed, and nurtured, my underlying passion; but I suppose were probably damaging to my style. I was haunted by Faulkner probably till “Meeting Place.”

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Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

The following is an interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture becaue he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.

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Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Interview with Jeffrey Bennett, author of “What Is Relativity,” Part 2

The following is the second part of an interview with Jeffrey Bennett, author of What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter. You can read part one of the interview here.

What Is Relativity? Jeffrey BennettQuestion: You said above that relativity has “basic simplicity.” But relativity has a reputation for being very difficult. Which is it?

Jeffrey Bennett: The conceptual ideas of relativity are somewhat counterintuitive, but they are not difficult to understand. All you need is an open mind and a willingness to follow some simple “thought experiments” through to their logical conclusions, and then to consider the evidence that shows these conclusions to be correct. As to why relativity has a reputation for being difficult: For the most part, it’s an undeserved reputation coming from the fact that it seems weird when you first study it. However, if you want to go beyond understanding the concepts and actually use relativity to test scientific ideas or design new technologies, then you need to work with the mathematics of relativity as well as with the concepts. The mathematics can become quite involved, especially for general relativity, and I certainly hope that some of my younger readers will be inspired to learn this mathematics — but don’t worry, you won’t find any of this mathematics in my book, which focuses only on the conceptual ideas.

Q: Following up on that, you say that relativity can seem counterintuitive, but in the book you say it does not violate “common sense.” What do you mean?

JB: By definition, we can only have “common sense” about things that we commonly experience, and the surprising effects of relativity are not noticeable under the conditions of our everyday lives. Instead, they become noticeable only at speeds much faster than we ever travel, or in gravity far stronger than Earth’s. In the book I use an analogy to “up” and “down.” In our daily lives, common sense tells us that “up” is over our heads and “down” is below our feet, and this common sense works fine for things like basketball games. But if that was all there was to it, then people on the other side of Earth would fall off. The fact that they don’t fall of therefore tells us that our common sense isn’t telling us the whole story. In a similar way, the fact that relativity tells us that we’d measure space and time differently at high speeds means that our common sense about motion must not be the whole story either, even though it works fine for most things in our daily lives.

Q: You start the book with a chapter in which you take readers on an imaginary future voyage to a black hole, and in the process you say that “black holes don’t suck.” What do you mean by that?

Jeffrey Bennett: For some reason, it’s commonly assumed that if you went anywhere near a black hole, you’d be sucked in, or that if the Sun turned into a black hole then Earth would get sucked in. But it’s not true. At a distance, the gravity of a black hole is no different than the gravity of a more ordinary star, and you’d have to get extremely close to the black hole before you noticed any difference. Because black holes are so well known in popular culture, I decided that an imaginary journey in which we learned what would really happen on a voyage to a black hole would be a good way to introduce Einstein’s amazing ideas.

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