Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Q&A with writer Thomas Hayden

Thomas Hayden
Thomas Hayden, who has worked for Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, is the co-editor of the new book The Science Writers' Handbook: Everything You Need to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. He is also the co-author of On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq  War Story, and Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World. He teaches at Stanford University.

Q: What's the story behind The Science Writers' Handbook, and how is it especially helpful in today's market?

A: The Science Writers’ Handbook grew out of the longest, most circuitous, most fascinating conversation I’ve ever been part of. For nearly eight years, an informal online group of 30-plus freelance science writers have been sharing strategies, celebrating successes and commiserating about frustrations in the field. 

We call ourselves SciLance (science freelancer – get it?), and a few years ago we realized that we’d confronted most every problem a science writer could run into, and solved a fair number of them – not least by finding mutual support within the group. 

Sharing our collective insights seemed like the natural next step, and that’s what The Science Writers’ Handbook is, essentially – a collected and codified version of our tribal wisdom. It’s a “how to” guide for writing about science for the public, but also a “why to,” and even a “how not to go broke or crazy while trying to” guide, too.

We focused in the title on our shared passion for writing about science. But the book could just as honestly been called “The Freelance Writers’ Handbook.” We all have been, or currently are freelance writers. And the lessons we’ve learned – about the craft of nonfiction writing, certainly, but also about the business side of freelancing, and even the social and emotional effects of working for oneself in an often-solitary craft – apply to freelancers in any field.

More people are working as freelancers than ever before, and interest in science writing is absolutely exploding. We wrote the book to help current and future colleagues, writing students, scientists with a passion for communicating with the public and anyone else interested in science writing to achieve their goals without having to go through quite as much heartache and angst on the way as we all did.

Q: What is your advice when it comes to pitching a science story to an editor?

A: Be firm in your pitch, but flexible in the follow up. With the exception of the hardcore science press – the news sections of academic journals, for example – most publications think of science stories as optional coverage. That means you’ll often do better with a feature pitch than a news pitch. 

When you first approach an editor with a science story idea, you’re really showing her how you think, and how well you can refine a broad area of research into a specific story, with characters, plot, some sort of narrative arc and crucially, a sense of how the science will be relevant to the publication’s readers. You need to have a well-defined, well-developed idea to do that. 

Sometimes, success means getting to do the story you pitch. But for first-timers especially, success just as often means coming up with a new take, or entirely new story idea, in collaboration with an editor who simply likes the way you think, but wants you to think about something else entirely.

Q: You're also the co-author of On Call In Hell. How did you end up working with Cdr. Richard Jadick on the book?

A: That was a project of opportunity, though one that I was very passionate about. I had recently gone freelance, after working as a staffer first at Newsweek, then at US News & World Report. A former colleague from Newsweek had unearthed the story at the heart of the book – the heroic efforts of Navy medical personnel to keep Marines alive during the second battle of Fallujah, in 2004 – and encouraged my eventual co-author to share his experiences as their leader. She introduced me to Jadick, and he enlisted my help to report and write the book.

It isn’t science writing per se, but like many science journalists I’m a writer first – I just happen to be passionate about science, too. The human drama of the story is front and center, though the science of battlefield medicine plays an important role, too.

Q: In your book Sex and War, you and your co-author, Malcolm Potts, write that "empowering women reduces the risk of violent conflict." What led you to that conclusion, and what steps should be taken, in your opinion, to move in that direction?

A: It’s a conclusion I resisted at first -- until I’d spent several years excavating and examining the evidence from history, biology, anthropology and more. Simply put, human males are responsible for the great majority of violent conflict through time and across cultures and developmental stages. 

There are very good evolutionary reasons why this would be so, but at the same time, we live in what is probably the least violent era of human history. It’s hard to get your head around that fact, but it’s true – despite our wars and crime, despite our technology of destruction, an individual’s chance of dying through violent conflict today is almost certainly lower than at any previous time in human history. 

There are several mechanisms that explain this, including the development of ethical and moral codes against killing civilians, and the expansion of “in groups” to include larger and larger swaths of humanity. For every mechanism we examined though, the relative political power of women was directly linked to lower rates of violent conflict and violent deaths.

This is very obviously, very brutally, still not the prevailing situation in many areas of the world, including such central African countries as The Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Afghanistan, the tribal regions of Pakistan, and elsewhere.   

The two key steps to encourage more empowerment of women are protection first, and education second. Simultaneously, really. These same regions of the world are desperate for human capital, and women very often posses the courage and vision to become agents of peaceful development, against great odds. But that can’t be achieved without a baseline level of education and security.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The topic is still under wraps, but my next book will be a collaboration with my father [Michael Hayden], a historian and author. We share a passion for understanding human nature, from distinct perspectives. We’re working on blending our historical, scientific and experiential perspectives to, you know, solve all the world’s problems. Or at least tell some engaging yarns.

In the meantime, most of my writing passion is focused on The Last Word on Nothing, a group science blog I contribute to with a dozen other writers, including my wife, Erika Check Hayden.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The conversations that started The Science Writers’ Handbook are still going strong. Only they’re not just for SciLancers anymore. We’ve started a webpage, at pitchpublishprosper.com, where we’re discussing the craft, commerce and community of science writing every day. Come on and join the conversation!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1945: Writer Annie Dillard born.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Q&A with Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

Rabbi Mindy Portnoy
Mindy Avra Portnoy is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., and the author of several books for children, including Ima on the Bima, Where Do People Go When They Die?, and Matzah Ball

Q: Two of your books, A Tale of Two Seders and Matzah Ball, deal with the Passover holiday. What about Passover makes it a good subject to write about, especially for kids?

A: Passover (Pesach) includes so many tangible symbols, which makes it very accessible to people of all ages, including children. And the Seder’s setting is at home, where children can celebrate comfortably. Of course, on a practical level as far as the world of publishing/marketing goes, people are also often looking for a meaningful Afikomen present to give to a child, and a book is still the perfect gift.

In terms of the particular topics of my two Passover books, Passover does often coincide with the beginning of the baseball season; both represent spring and renewal in many ways. In Matzah Ball, I deal with the issue of “feeling different” (which in the case of the child in the book means he can’t eat the usual ballpark food); I discovered after publishing it, that other minority groups related to it well.  Mostly, I wrote it because I’m a fanatic baseball fan!

My other Passover book, A Tale of Two Seders, deals with the family dynamics of Passover, in this particular case, two parents who are divorced. The idyllic picture of the traditional family gathered together around the Passover Seder table turns out to be more complicated for the child in the book; this reverberates for people in other holiday situations, like Thanksgiving. How do you “make it work” when your family is “different”? In this case, the charoset recipe serves as the perfect metaphor!

Q: What reaction have readers had to your book Where Do People Go When They Die?, and why did you decide to write a book explaining death to children?

A: What most surprised me in the reaction to Where Do People Go When They Die? is that so many adults tell me it has served as a catalyst for THEM to discuss death and their beliefs about an afterlife with other adults! I thought I had written a book for children, but it turns out death is such a taboo topic that this simple book often helps adults to find a way to talk about their own feelings, beliefs, hopes. It is a book which also appeals to people of different religions or who are not religious at all; it is not for Jews only (this often happens with my books; I discovered to my surprise that many Christian groups really appreciated the “Elijah” figure in Matzah Ball!).

I wrote Where Do People Go When They Die? because I discovered I  (as a Rabbi) needed a book like that to recommend to parents of young children who had experienced the death of a loved one, and who were trying to find appropriate language to discuss it with them. The illustrations in the book are very colorful and warm, not at all “scary”, and the words and pictures together enable parents to broach the subject. It also allows parents to be able to say that people have different ideas about what happens after a person dies, and that there doesn’t have to be one pat answer.

Q: You were one of the first women rabbis in Reform Judaism. How did your own experience inspire you to write Ima on the Bima?

A: I wrote Ima on the Bima because I came up with the title and knew that one of my colleagues would no doubt write such a book, so why not me? I was one of the early female rabbis, and I knew that there were no children’s books which included a woman rabbi. I also discovered that there were no books just talking about what rabbis do. And in fact it is important to note that nowhere in the book does the child say anything about it being strange our unusual that her MOM is a rabbi, because for children of that generation (the book was published in 1986), it was just a fact of life, it was not unusual for them.  That’s what they grew up with! I have recently authored an essay for the Central Conference of American Rabbis for an upcoming anthology about the 40th anniversary (2012) of women in the rabbinate, in which I re-examine Ima on the Bima from the perspective of 27 years later.

Q: Another of your books, "Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School," deals with religious conversion. How did you come up with the particular characters for that story?

A: Again, I wrote Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School because I couldn’t find children’s books about the topic of conversion to Judaism, and yet so many children were growing up with parents who had converted, and it is important for children to see themselves in literature.  My publisher, KAR BEN (later bought by Lerner Publishing), recognized that new kinds of books needed to be published for a new world of Jewish children, who couldn’t see themselves in the “old school” of Jewish children’s literature. It was actually a very daring venture, because the Jewish children’s publishing world is a small niche, and there were very traditional Jews who would not purchase a book with a woman rabbi for example (there were Jewish bookstores who wouldn’t even sell Ima on the Bima at first!) or in which there was full equality between men and women, etc. 

Q: Are you working on another children's book?

A: I’m working on several different writing projects, including another children’s book. In the past couple of years, I’ve been writing blogs (on my Women’s Rabbinic Network site, for example), articles for Haaretz.com, two essays for LILITH magazine, the essay for the CCAR anthology, and am hoping (as I retire from my full-time congregational position at the end of May) to work on a longer (perhaps even adult) project as well. I think there are still underserved areas to be explored in Jewish children’s literature, e.g. Jewish children’s relationships with children from other religions, the impact of interfaith marriage, and many others. I may want to write a follow-up to Ima as well.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for asking me to share my thoughts with you. I’m available for speaking engagements and book fairs, so if anyone is interested, you can contact me at breenport@gmail.com.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with novelist Caroline Preston

Caroline Preston
Caroline Preston is the author of four novels, Jackie by Josie, Lucy Crocker 2.0, Gatsby's Girl, and, most recently, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Q: You have written three "conventional" novels and one novel in the form of a scrapbook. Which format do you prefer, and why?

A: For now, I would say that I prefer the form of a scrapbook novel.  I have collected vintage scrapbooks and photographs since I was in high school.  This led me to a graduate degree in American History, and a 15-year career as an archivist at the Peabody/ Essex Museum in Salem, and Harvard’s Houghton Library.  In doing research for my three earlier novels, I studied historic photographs and scrapbooks (especially the ones kept by Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald), and was struck by the storytelling power of visual material.

In making The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, it was exciting to combine words and vintage ephemera.

Q: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt takes place in the 1920s, and your previous novel, Gatsby's Girl, deals in part with a similar time period. What about that period intrigues you?

A: I have been fascinated by the 1920s ever since I was a little girl and used to pore over my grandmother’s scrapbooks from her glamorous days as a flapper in Paris.  I loved the clothes, the haircuts, the grand ocean liners, the cars,. The 1920s were a period when every aspect of American life and culture was upended. There was the advent of new technology such as the movies, radio, and the automobile. There were radical modern experiments in literature, art, and music.  Women’s lives were dramatically transformed.  Women could vote, drive, work, and live on their own.  They could forgo marriage, and have many of the sexual and social freedoms that men had.  In other words, a perfect setting for a novel with a female heroine.

Q: Jackie by Josie, your first novel, also looks at history, in its case, that of Jackie Kennedy. What got you interested in doing a novel with a Kennedy theme?

A: At Harvard, I cataloged the papers of the journalist Teddy White, who wrote The Making of the President, 1960.  After that, I worked very briefly for the celebrity biographer Ed Klein doing research on Jackie Kennedy.  That gave me the inspiration for the frustrated and hapless research assistant in Jackie by Josie.

Q: Your second novel, Lucy Crocker 2.0, was published in 2000 and its characters are involved in running a software company. Why did you pick this theme for the book?

A: I am the mother of three sons who at that time were obsessed with a fantasy computer game, and I found myself becoming addicted too.  The game had been designed by a husband and wife team, which provided the inspiration for Lucy Crocker.

Q: You've written that you're now working on another scrapbook novel. What historical period are you looking at this time, and why?

A: My new scrapbook novel is about a war bride during World War II.  My office is completely buried by ration cards, war bonds, war time letters, and old issues of Life magazine.  The clothes, the music, the movies are all so high octane and glamorous.  I think this may be my favorite subject and time period yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with writer Annie Barrows

Annie Barrows
Annie Barrows is the co-author, with her late aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, of the bestselling novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She also is the author of the children's series Ivy and Bean, and The Magic Half, a novel for kids.

Q: You have written for adults and for children. Do you prefer one type of writing over the other, and if so, why?

A: I get this question a lot, and I always have a tough time answering it. Usually, I try to avoid the whole thing by saying that I like children readers better because they’re cuter. Which is true—the cuter part, I mean—but evasive. This time, I’ll attempt a real answer. Here’s what I like about writing for kids: you must know how it’s going to end when you begin. You have to keep the writing tight; you can’t be scampering down tangential paths or introducing subsidiary ideas that don’t pertain to the story. It’s a little like poetry, in that the form demands distillation and a very clear mind.

Here’s what I like about writing for grownups: you don’t have to know every single thing before you begin. Meandering is allowed. You can introduce ideas that don’t play out for a very long time. You can hint at things. You can imply things. There is kissing.
In other words, what I like about writing for kids is exactly the opposite of what I like about writing for grownups. I don’t exactly know what to make of that in terms of preference. I guess I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them.

Q: Did you expect The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be such a huge bestseller, and what about it do you think appealed to so many people? Would your aunt have been surprised at the reception the book has had?

A: Well, we had a hint that it was going to be popular when there was an auction for US publication rights. And we thought it boded well that foreign rights were sold to twelve publishers before the book was edited. And then when the booksellers who read the advance copies kept raving about it—that seemed positive. But nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for the tidal wave that occurred when the book was published.
Why do I think the book had such appeal? Because it’s exactly like Mary Ann.  I never in forty-five years encountered anyone who could resist Mary Ann’s storytelling.  She delighted, entertained, and enchanted everyone she ever met. Just like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.   

The one person who might not have seen it like this is Mary Ann herself. I think she’d have been shocked at the uproar. She was, actually, a rather shy person, and she lived a pretty quiet life, so I doubt she would have enjoyed touring and being interviewed. But she would have loved hearing from all the readers who adored the book, and I like to think she’s been reading those letters and emails over my shoulder for the past five years.       

Q: You write on your website that you're a big fan of Edward Eager, who wrote Half Magic and other classics, and that the title of your children's book The Magic Half is partly inspired by Eager. What about his books do you particularly like?

A: I am a big fan of Eager in particular and what I call domestic magic in general. What Eager does is place magic in the context of regular life—as opposed to fantasy, in which the tale occurs in another, magical world.  As a kid, I much preferred domestic magic, because it helped me maintain my hope that someday, somehow, I’d have a magical experience myself.  I also love Eager’s books (all of them!)  because they’re character-driven, which is rarely the case in a magic story. All too often, writers of magic stories opt to resolve all issues by means of magic, because they can and because it’s easy. Unfortunately, it’s also boring.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your "Ivy and Bean" series for kids?

A: When she was seven, my poor kid ran out of books to read. I was outraged. I mean, I’ve run out of books to read, but I’m fifty.  She had only been reading for a year, and it didn’t seem fair.  I was in a total snit until I thought, Hey, wait, I’m a writer. I can write her a book.  So I asked her whether she’d rather read a book about real life or about magic, and she said she wanted to read a book about herself. Cool, I thought. I can do that. And I did.

Q: You also have written several books under the name Ann Fiery. Why did you choose to use a different name for those books?

A: My real name is Ann Fiery Barrows. Are you getting that? My middle name is Fiery. Fiery.  What a happening name! And it’s buried there in the middle, where no one ever sees it.  When I started writing, I thought, Here at last is my chance to display my cool middle name. Ann Fiery.  Oh my god, what a fantastic pseudonym: Ann Fiery. Ann Fiery, author of the best-selling...
Yeah, right. No one tells you about the pseudonymic cauldron of doom. They just let you go right ahead and throw yourself into it. The pseudonymic cauldron of doom is MAJOR SOCIAL ANXIETY caused by not knowing whether you’re supposed to be acting like an author or yourself.  E.g.: when signing a book for someone who knows you as Annie Barrows, are you supposed to sign “Annie Barrows” or are you supposed to sign “Ann Fiery”? And if you do sign “Annie Barrows,” does the owner technically possess an autographed book or not? And what if people start calling you Ann, which you’ve always loathed? And what if people start asking for Ann on the phone, heretofore the signal that you can hang up because only salespeople call you Ann, but now...
And before you know it, you’re fleeing madly through darkened alleys, grunting and shrieking.         

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Ooooh, the tenth Ivy and Bean book is coming out this fall! It’s called Ivy and Bean Take the Case, and it’s more or less Ivy and Bean’s answer to Nancy Drew. I think it’s totally hilarious. 

My next adult novel will be coming along in Spring 2014. It doesn’t have a title yet, but I can tell you that it’s set in 1938, and it’s about a girl who’s working on the Federal Writers Project. She’s sent, protesting vigorously, to a small Southern town to write its history, and finds herself boarding with a family that turns out to have played quite a big role in said history. Everyone who’s ever read the manuscript describes the family as terrifically eccentric, which I don’t understand at all. They seem completely normal to me. Also funny—they crack me up.  They’ve been my best friends for the last five years, and already I’m missing writing about them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m very tall.*
 *This is a lie.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 26

April 26, 1888: Writer Anita Loos born.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Q&A with writer Ian Frazier

Ian Frazier
Ian Frazier, who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for many years, is the author most recently of the novel The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days. His numerous other books include On the Rez, Travels in Siberia, Great Plains, and Family. He is married to the novelist Jacqueline "Jay" Carey.

Q: How did you come up with the character of the Cursing Mommy, who first appeared in some of your New Yorker columns, and do you know actual women who remind you of her?

A: The Cursing Mommy started as a joke in our family. Our daughter had some very well-brought-up friends when we lived in Montana, and they were in the back seat when Jay, my wife, was driving them somewhere. In traffic another driver cut Jay off, and she expressed herself forcefully, and one of the little girls whispered to my daughter, "Cora, your Mommy cursed!" When I was growing up there was a mom in our neighborhood who cursed eloquently-- her name was Mrs. Erskine-- and to this day my brother can do a beautiful imitation of her, though she is long departed. Jay wants me to make clear that the Cursing Mommy is based more on me than on anyone else. I'm the person in our family who tends to fly off the handle.

Q: Was it difficult to write in a female voice, and did you ever consider writing from the perspective of a "Cursing Daddy"?

A: I found writing in the CM's voice very easy. That's why I decided to write a whole book based on her. I never considered doing a Cursing Daddy. A dad who curses is less funny, somehow. The dads in my book tend to weep helplessly.

Q: Your books span a wide variety of subjects and themes, from fiction to humorous essays to well-reported non-fiction. Is there a genre you prefer?

A: I prefer any book that yields good results. That changes with circumstances. I love to write humorous fiction when I feel it's working well. I have to say that humor can be a lot of fun to write-- but in any piece of writing, the person who's supposed to be getting the most out of it and having the fun is the reader, not the writer.

Q: You have written for The New Yorker since 1974. How has the magazine changed over the years, and how has your own writing been influenced by the years you've spent there?

A: The New Yorker does not have the pages it had when I started out so its writers have less space. Brevity and conciseness are more important now. There's less emphasis on the writer as a self, I think. I feel less inclined to emote than I did when I was in my twenties and thirties. The New Yorker has been a wonderful teacher for me. There are always good writers appearing in it-- new and old. I am always seeing work in the magazine that I can learn from.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: These days I'm working on New Yorker articles and on a book about the closing of the Stella D'oro bakery in the Bronx. The book is based on a New Yorker article that appeared last year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My daughter, Cora, is now grown up, and she has become a writer, and one of the new New Yorker contributors that I'm learning from. I think her humor piece in the magazine just last week is one of the best it has published in recent memory. I'm very proud of her.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author/journalist Daniel Klaidman

Daniel Klaidman, photo by Stephen Lewis
Daniel Klaidman, a longtime journalist, is the national political correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He is the author of Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency.

Q: How do you think law enforcement and government officials handled the events in Boston this past week?

A: I think quite well in a number of different respects. First, the FBI was absolutely methodical in the investigation; they acted very quickly…. Their first priority was to protect the public from other attacks, then figure out who did it, then capture them, and eventually prosecute them. It strikes me that they threw an enormous amount of resources at this case….

It’s a difficult dilemma: whether to release the photos [of the suspects. Law enforcement] benefited from all the technology; there were so many images of the Marathon, they were able to go through the pictures very quickly, and use technology to make the pictures as clear as possible. Within hours of the blast, they were fanned out at Logan [airport in Boston looking] for people were leaving the city [after being at the Marathon], to get their camera phones [and check for photos]. I’m not sure [there was a photo from those people at Logan that] made a difference, but it tells you how painstaking they were. It was very impressive.

Q: You raise the question, "Can you kill or capture bad guys wherever you find them while staying true to American values and the rule of law?" How successfully do you think the Obama administration has handled that issue, and how was that question relevant this past week?

A: I was thinking about that this morning. The book is called “Kill or Capture” because it goes to that very difficult dilemma that America is dealing with. If you’re in a position to capture a suspected terrorist, what do you do with him? The politics of detention in the war on terror is very polarized…

[One] theory [holds] that the administration has decided it’s not going to capture terrorists, it would rather kill them, because it didn’t want to deal with the politics of detention.

All those issues are now coming up in this particular case….The administration, with four years of experience, is now much more confident in how to handle these types of cases; there’s less hand-wringing over how to handle them….

Q: What would you say are the biggest similarities and differences between the Bush and Obama administrations' approaches to fighting terrorism?

A: You have to remember the climate these administrations operated in. The Bush administration, at least the first year after 9/11—the country was still traumatized, there were worries about major follow-on attacks. They were operating in a climate of fear. It would be hard to know how any other administration would have reacted.

Having said that, there are very significant differences. First, the Bush administration from day one, in a pretty dogmatic way, said: We’re changing the paradigm in terms of law enforcement, we are at war; the criminal justice system is not tough enough to deal with the threat that we are facing. The Bush administration went down the path to war, and it led to controversy: enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo, were all justified by the notion that we were at war.

The Obama administration has accepted the premise that we are at war with al Qaeda; it has embraced the idea that the laws of war apply. In [its] first three months, the Obama administration embraced many of the legal arguments the Bush administration had used, but said we are going to pursue a hybrid strategy. When it makes sense to use the [rules of] war, we will; when it makes sense to use the criminal justice system, we will do that.

It wasn’t only about idealism, it was hard-nosed pragmatic reasons as well. Sometimes the criminal justice system is more effective. Look at the 9/11 cases that are languishing in Guantanamo. The military commission system is very untested; [people are] not sure certain legal theories can be used to prosecute terrorists. It’s a hybrid approach. That is a significant difference.

There are others as well—the rhetoric, how the Obama administration talks about these issues. What was striking about Boston was Obama’s emphasis on resilience: We’re not going to be terrorized. The conviction that you play into terrorist hands if you have a hysterical response to terrorist attacks. You saw that very much on display when he talked about the attack.

Q: What about the idea of shutting a city down, as Boston was last Friday? Would that strategy be used again?

A: It will be [decided] case by case. But there is a danger when you lock a city down, that it sends a message to the terrorists. For a lot of terrorists, what they wanted was to cause as much economic damage to the U.S. as possible. AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] has said, we don’t need to do a spectacular attack in the U.S.; a couple hundred dollar [attack] can cause panic.

On the other hand, having an armed terrorist on the loose, it doesn’t strike me as an overreaction to shut down a city for a particular time. They lifted the lockdown before the second suspect was caught. How was he caught? When the lockdown was lifted, a resident walked out of his house and found the guy. Sometimes it takes a whole community to catch a terrorist and bring the person to justice. It can work either way.

Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your work on Kill or Capture?

A: There were lots of things that surprised me. What I tried to do was to focus on the human dimensions of national security decision-making, and the struggles inside the administration about balancing law, security, and morality. I was surprised at how wrenching these decisions were. It was heartening in a way.

What surprised me the most was President Obama’s very personal involvement in the killing decisions, the drones and other killing decisions….I learned that President Obama signed off on individual killing decisions—it stunned me….

Obama was elected in part to wind down the wars of 9/11, get out of Iraq and [eventually] Afghanistan, yet he faced a continuing threat. It was hard to find a way to balance the interests. The drone campaign was appealing to him.

Q: Do you expect any changes in how the Obama administration deals with terrorism and counterterrorism issues as his second term continues?

A: Yes, and the Boston case was reflective of that. It’s hard to capture terrorists. They tend to be in remote areas, or in countries where we don’t want boots on the ground. With captures, including this case in Boston, the administration said we are going to try these people in civilian courts, we’re not going to send them to Guantanamo. They have developed more confidence in these cases. The American people by and large have been supportive. That’s a trend we’re going to see continue. Not to say that there won’t be a case of an al Qaeda [leader] being caught, and [in that case] maybe they would decide to put him in a military commission. …

Another thing that bears close watching is what happens to the drone program over the next couple of years. It’s become more and more controversial. There’s a growing level of [concern] in the administration that if they want to maintain public support, they are going to have to be more transparent.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 22

April 22, 1873: Novelist Ellen Glasgow born.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Q&A with author Michael Chorost

Michael Chorost is the author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, which focused on the changes in his life after he received a cochlear implant, and World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: You have written, "My two implants make me irreversibly computational, a living example of the integration of humans and computers." How closely do you think humans and computers are already connected, and how much more connected do you think they can become?
A: That is from my first book, Rebuilt. Right now they’re connected in the sense that we spend all our lives around computers. Most people I know never get more than five feet away from their iPhone, ever. 
I’ve gone rather further than that in actually having chips surgically installed in my head that send data directly to my auditory nerve. A surgeon inserted sixteen electrodes into my inner ear that fire my auditory nerves. There’s a gadget I wear on my ear that takes in sound, digitizes it, and sends it by radio to an implanted chip in my skull. The chip figures out how to parcel the binary data to my sixteen electrodes, and I get an experience that is sort of like hearing.
People have seen this as a harbinger of the day where everyone has implants that enhance their brains or senses. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between prosthetic implants and enhancement implants.   
Prosthetic implants are what I have. I need them because I’m deaf. They required surgery, which is always risky, but for me the risk-to-reward ratio was very high: low risk, very high reward. 
Enhancement implants are a different story. No one knows what the rewards would be, and the risks would not be zero. One thing I learned from getting a cochlear implant is how complex and unpredictable the body is, and that makes me wary of bold predictions.  I’m not saying it won’t happen, I’m just saying that it’s very far off.
Having said that, in my second book, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Computers, and the Internet, I took on the role of technofuturist. I wrote about implants that could, in theory, someday, allow the sense-impressions and feelings of one person to be transmitted directly to the brain of another person, or even more profoundly, to groups of other people. A kind of collective awareness, or telepathy. 
The point was that the real future of implanted devices isn’t going to be to enhance our existing abilities, but to let us do new things entirely. That’s always been the deal with technology: it creates new ways of doing things. Telephones, email, and Facebook don’t really let us do the old ways better. They open up entirely new ways of communicating. I see that pattern continuing someday with implanted technologies, once the risk-to-reward ratio becomes favorable.
Q: Part of World Wide Mind deals with how you met your wife. What do you see as a good balance between being connected to technology and having links to other people? How can someone find the balance that's right for them?
A: There must have been fifty books published in the last few years about how addictive Internet technologies have become, with people worrying that they are distorting and harming human relationships. It’s easy to be afraid of harms we already know about, while not seeing the benefits that we presently can’t yet imagine. 
In World Wide Mind I tried to offer a visionary but also more balanced view of the future. The “telepathy” I talk about in World Wide Mind could be like what we have now, only a hundred times more compelling and addictive. What do we do about that? 
In the book I interwove the technology with a story of teaching myself to connect better with people face-to-face. I wrote about going to workshops in Northern California where people would do exercises like looking into each other’s eyes and listening without interrupting. Very basic stuff. However, these are skills usually aren’t taught. We just assume people are good at them, where in fact often they aren’t. 
In the book, I juxtaposed the high-tech, low-touch future of a World Wide Mind with the high-touch, low-tech present of the workshops: I thought it was a heady, provocative combination. 
I argued that we need to develop transformative new technologies and teach ourselves the skills of compassion, listening, and being present in one’s body. To get a future worth living in, you have to do both. There isn’t any shortcut. You just have do the hard work of being human.
Q: How has the cochlear implant changed your life, and would you recommend them to other people in your situation?
A: If cochlear implants didn’t exist I would have had to try to learn sign language and join the signing deaf community. Nothing against it, but it’s a completely different world, with its own language and cultural life. 
I wanted to stay in the hearing world I’d grown up in, so cochlear implants were the obvious choice. They’ve given me back the partial hearing they used to have – I actually hear better with them than I did with hearing aids. 
Before, I could hear a clock ticking maybe five feet away.  Now, it’s twenty or thirty feet.  It feels like my arms are five times longer than they used to be. 
Everything sounded very weird, of course. When the implant was first turned on, “What did you have for breakfast?” sounded to me like “Zzzzzz szz szvizzz ur brfzzzzzz.”  Teapots sounded like foghorns instead of whistles.  My own voice sounded either squeakier or hollower, depending on what software I was using.  Paper made bell-like sounds when I rattled it.  I’ve adapted to it, but it’s still strange.
I would recommend them to two groups of people: (a) adults who have had hearing for most of their lives, and (b) children. I would not recommend them to adults who have never used a spoken language, because in that case the brain doesn’t know how to hear, and it’s usually too late to start. Implants rarely enable such users to become skilled in hearing a spoken language. 
Cochlear implants are not for everyone, and it’s up to the medical team and the patient to make a well-informed decision. In my case the choice was an obvious yes, because I’d used hearing aids since 3½, had grown up as an oral deaf person, and was skilled with spoken language.
Q: How much time in a typical day do you spend on the computer or other devices?
A: Too much.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’d love to write a book on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and I’m writing a book proposal for it now. Whether my agent will be able to sell it to a publisher, that’s anyone’s guess.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Michael Chorost is on Twitter @MikeChorost

April 21

April 21, 1816: Charlotte Bronte born.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Q&A with authors Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey

Jane Freundel Levey
Bob Levey
Jane Freundel Levey and Bob Levey are the authors of Washington Album: A Pictorial History of the Nation's Capitol. Jane Freundel Levey, a public historian, is director of heritage and community programs for Cultural Tourism DC, and served as editor of Washington History magazine. Bob Levey, who also has written two other books, worked for The Washington Post for 36 years, including 23 years writing the column "Bob Levey's Washington."

Q: What are the biggest "myths" about Washington, D.C., history that you found to be untrue?

JFL: a. D.C. was built on a swamp.
b. Benjamin Banneker designed the city.
c. Buildings cannot be taller than the Capitol.

BL: That there isn’t any pure D.C. cultural history and there never has been. There ALWAYS has been.

Q: Why did you decide to write a history of D.C., and how was it to work together on a project?

JFL: Bob was working at the Post, where he had been covering the city for many years. I was (and am) a historian specializing in the history of Washington, D.C. The book editor at the Post, Noel Epstein, knew us both well and approached us to do a “popular” history of D.C. to commemorate Congress’s arrival in Washington in 1800. The book was delivered in time for the 200th anniversary of Congress’s arrival. It was great to work on this together. Bob found it weird to have to rewrite, but he came around. We agreed easily on the topics and photo choices. He wrote the text, and I wrote the captions. I did most of the research; Susan Breitkopf supplied some of it, as did Suzannah Gonzalez and Lynn Ryzewicz.

BL: Jane is far too gentle here. We are about as diametrically opposed as two people could be in our basic orientation toward doing a book. I wanted it to be just a longer newspaper column…. write it, tweak it, don’t fret over it, call it done, pour another coffee, move on to the next mountain. Jane wanted (and still wants!) to research, research, research.

Q: What surprised you the most that you discovered in the course of your research?

JFL: I think it was the indifference of the citizens of the United States to the aspirations that George Washington and other early leaders had for their nation’s capital. But that indifference helps explain why we still don’t have voting rights as well as why D.C. was so slow to develop in the 19th century.

BL: That D.C. was so slow to become a real city, with basics like sewers, paved streets, streetcars that went more than a few miles.

Q: If you were to write an update, what would you choose to include from the past decade of D.C. history?

JFL: If I were going to write an update, I’d want to add even more to the older history! But for the past decade I would highlight the demographic changes that have ended the African American dominance of the city as well as the enormous reinvestment in the oldest sections and the long-awaited restoration of the 1968 riot corridors.

BL: I’d like to add lots of material about the late 1940s and 1950s, a period when D.C. underwent immense racial change (and blockbusting). From the last decade, I’d include the (re)emergence of U Street, the surge of big-time professional sports (Nationals, Wizards, Caps) and the ferment over the D.C. public schools (under one of my least favorite humans, Michelle Rhee).

Q: Are you working on another book?

JFL: Not yet. I have a project based on my master’s thesis that I’d love to see through . . . one day!

BL: Jane and I have discussed a book about blockbusting in D.C., but no action or traction yet.

Interview with Deborah Kalb