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Chasing Paper: The Debt Collection Underground

Bad Paper“Creditors have better memories than debtors.” --Benjamin Franklin

Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think. Falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets, Jake Halpern's Bad Paper introduces us to an economy spanning many shades of gray. Halpern's book tracks the descent of "paper" (spreadsheets containing the information of millions of debtors and their debts) as it's sold for pennies on the dollar by banks and credit companies and passed through a network of collectors. Files are often bought and sold multiple times, each transaction stripping away the best remaining prospects as collectors wring paper dry through all manners of persuasion and coercion. Along the way, Halpern encounters first-hand the game's players, from the financiers at the top of the pyramid to mid-level "brokers" and the ground-level phone-jockeys; these are all hard men within their contexts, as one tale of a Tarantino-grade stand-off over stolen information attests. This book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun.

Read these short biographies of some of the Bad Paper's most interesting players, and check out our Q&A with Halpern below. Bad Paper is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


 Bad Paper's Cast of Characters by Author Jake Halpern

Aaron Siegel: Private Equity Fund Founder

“All of a sudden, you’re swimming in waters you didn’t really want to swim in – never would have conceived you’d be swimming in.” -- Aaron Siegel

Aaron is a banker who made a big gamble. In 2008, he purchased well over a billion dollars worth of unpaid credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar. What he bought, essentially, were just spreadsheets with names, addresses, phone numbers, and balances of debtors. All went well until some of those accounts were stolen and vanished into the debt underworld. Luckily Aaron had someone to call – a fixer named Branson Wilson who knew just what to do. (See below.)

Brandon Wilson: Debt Broker & Fixer

“I will come back down here, I will take your server, I will burn your agency to the ground, I will come to your house and burn it down, and then I will come back here and burn this store down. Understand?” – Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson is a former armed robber who now runs his own collection agency and debt brokerage firm. He also serves as Aaron’s emissary to the collections industry’s many unsavory precincts.

Shafeeq: Debt Collector & Security Specialist

“I can go and shoot a person—an intruder, at your house—and it would be a lot easier to do something like that with the security contract in place. Whereas if I’m just showing up at your house, and I shoot somebody, now there’s a lot more, you know, paperwork.” – Shafeeq

Shafeeq runs one of the collection agencies that Aaron hires to “work” his paper. He is a devout Muslim, who tries to avoid charging interest whenever possible. Shafeeq also runs his own security firm and is licensed to carry a firearm.

Jimmy: Debt Collector from the East Side of Buffalo

“Back when he ran up into my office with that gun, I’ll tell you what, it felt good. My adrenaline was pumping. I wanted to shoot him.” -- Jimmy

After going to jail, Jimmy turned his back on crime and reinvented himself as a debt collector. Even so, sometimes his past catches up with him.

Larry: A Debt Broker Based in Buffalo

“Certain things you don’t want to know, because once you know something, then you become an accessory to it or responsible—so it’s just better not to know, because most of the dealings on the level that we’re on, they’re not legitimate.” – Larry

Larry worked as a debt broker for years and is now trying to make a living as an artist.

Theresa: Debtor

“There are a thousand ways to rip off desperate people. The more desperate you are, and the less you have, the easier it is.” - Theresa

Theresa is a former Marine who fell hopelessly into debt when her marriage ended badly. She paid $2,700 to collectors who claimed to own her debt and then never heard from them again.

 


 

Bad Paper author Jake HalpernQuestions and Answers with Jake Halpern

 

On the surface, debt collection doesn’t seem like the most scintillating topic. How did you get involved with this story?

I know this sounds odd, but this book owes it existence to two people: my mother and Brad Pitt. It began with my mom. She started getting calls from a debt collector over a debt that she didn’t even owe. So I started investigating the debt collections industry and discovered that my hometown – Buffalo, N.Y. – was one of the epicenters. I ended up writing a profile about a collector, from Buffalo, for The New Yorker. After the article comes out, I get a call from Brad Pitt’s producer, telling me that he wants to turn the story into a TV series with HBO. I was shocked. But he was serious. So I end up traveling back to Buffalo, with the screenwriter, and we stay at my parents' house. It was surreal. The screenwriter is staying up on the third floor and my dad and his wife are making meals for him in the kitchen. Anyway, my job on this trip is to line up some interesting people for the screenwriter to meet, so his script feels authentic. Back when I was doing my story for The New Yorker, no one wanted to talk with me. Now, all of a sudden, I am doing a project with “Brad,” and people are tripping over themselves to talk. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y. Needless to say, I was hooked on their story.

What was the most unexpected turn the story took?

There were a bunch of unexpected turns. My favorite involved a character named Shafeeq, who was a smart, charming, gun-toting, black, Muslim polygamist. He is a rather minor character in my story, actually, but he played a pivotal role in one dramatic scene – the showdown with guns – and so I really wanted his perspective. I tried to get him to talk for well over two years, but he refused. Then one day he tells me that he will talk, if I travel to Buffalo and meet him at his mosque on the East Side of Buffalo. So I go. I show up at the mosque at sundown and, almost immediately, this very aggressive panhandler accosts me. Then out of the shadows of the mosque steps Shafeeq. He is ENORMOUS, roughly six and a half feet tall, and weighing more than 300 pounds. The panhandler skedaddles and Shafeeq leads me into his mosque, which is situated in a beautiful old church. We talk for the next three hours. During this time, he give me one of my favorite quotes from the book, which is an impassioned defense of polygamy. He claims that, by being a good father figure to many children in the African American community in Buffalo, he is a powerful force for good, because is modeling good behavior on an exponential level. “You’re Xeroxing righteousness,” he tells me. It’s one of those little, kind of random moments that is just so bizarre, fascinating, and memorable.

The book is filled with rough-around-the-edge characters doing some shady things. Was there any moment you felt uncomfortable, or even at risk?

Just once. I was in the car with a former cocaine dealer, named Jimmy, who had reinvented himself as debt collector. We were on the East Side of Buffalo, which is poor and crime-ridden. Suddenly, Jimmy slams on the brakes, bolts out of the car, and leaves me sitting there for the better part of ten minutes. When he finally returns to the car, Jimmy tells me that he had just spotted a guy he knew, who had recently pulled a gun on him. Jimmy had apparently chased after him but not found him. At that moment, Jimmy was shaking with rage. I just sat there in the car with him, saying nothing while he regained his composure. It was a tense few minutes.

You describe some of the collectors engaging in some dubious practices in order to collect on debt, especially where it comes to taking advantage of debtors’ ignorance (with regard to collection law and their rights) and collector tactics such as bullying. Do you expect reform in this business, and do you hope your book plays a part?

I do hope things change. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be issuing new rules that will – hopefully – change the way the consumer debt is bought, sold, and collected upon. And yes, I am hopeful that my book may help shed some small amount of light on the seedier corners of the industry. But ultimately, the ability of the CFPB to clean up this industry will also hinge on policing. Currently it is policing about 175 of the biggest agencies in the business. Yet according to recent industry estimates, there are well over 9,000 collection businesses in America. That’s a lot of ground to cover. So I am hopeful, but I am also doubtful that the industry will be fixed overnight.

Name three of your most influential writers or books.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann. Grann is a superb nonfiction writer. The number of amazing stories he finds, on a regular basis, is mind-blowing.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover. Conover is simply the best reporter I have ever encountered.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. This is a swashbuckling adventure tale involving Vikings. I love Vikings.

Next project, or current obsession?

I am weirdly interest in jailbird lawyers. I like the idea that there are a few prisoners who have studied the law, become erudite, and are helping work on cases. I am currently scouting out a story involving one of them.

In addition to your nonfiction, you co-authored a couple of well-received young adult novels. How’s that different? Do you plan more?

This is true. The biggest difference here – other than the fact that I write about haunted woods and iceberg fortresses – is that I co-write the books with my friend Peter Kujawinski. We wrote the first book in our Dormia series in 2009. Around that time, I was living on Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, which remains one of the most remote and sparsely settled regions in the continental United States. From my desk, in our tiny ranch house, I watched prairie dogs frolic and tumbleweed blow across the street. Meanwhile, my co-author – Peter – was serving as an American diplomat in Paris. His environs could not have been more radically different. Peter, known simply as “Kujo” by friends and family alike, inhabited a sprawling three-bedroom penthouse with stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. What united us, however, is that we were both twelve-year-olds at heart and wanted to make up imaginary worlds involving magical cities nestled in the mountains. So we started writing the Dormia series. And we just signed a two-book deal with Putnam / Penguin to start a new series. The first book, Nightfall, should be out in about a year.

Video: Ken Burns on the Making of "The Roosevelts"

RooseveltsKen Burns is known for telling epic stories about events and achievements in American history, from Prohibition to the Civil War to baseball. But rarely has he focused on personal history as he does in his latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which profiles the entwined, influential lives of Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Burns recently visited us at Amazon to discuss the seven-part series, which began airing on PBS in September and is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (The series is accompanied by a book of the same name, written with Geoffrey Ward).

"If these people really did influence us more than any other family--and I can make that argument--we want to know where they came from," Burns told me during our interview. "Their empathy is borne of certain sufferings that they each experienced ... They're all wounded people."

Hollywood, Behind the Camera

Hollywood Frame by FrameThe following is excerpted from Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen in Contact Sheets, 1951-1997.

Introduction, by Author Karina Longworth

In the pre-digital era, contact sheets offered a quick, visual summary of a photo shoot, and photographers, editors, and even subjects would make marks directly on the printed contact sheet pages to signify which images should be printed (and which absolutely shouldn't), how they should be cropped, and whether or not more shooting was needed. Once a frame of film was exposed, it couldn't be deleted, so contact sheets always include "mistakes" -- moments which the photographer, or the subject, may not want anyone to see. The contact sheets in Hollywood Frame by Frame are interesting for all of these reasons, and more. Most movie stars are given approval over which images of themselves are used for publicity purposes, and from the 1950s through the 1970s, the key way stars approved images was by making marks on contact sheets. Publicity departments, too, would use contact sheets to select the right, and wrong, ways to present the images representing a specific film or star. In allowing a glimpse into which images of stars like Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and James Dean commercially useful and which weren't, these contact sheets tell stories about how star personas are invented, while also exposing aspects of the individual celebrities' personalities which the entire industry of celebrity myth-making usually tries to squeeze out. 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Paramount/The Kobal Collection/Howell Conant)
 
Bus Stop
Bus Stop (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
 
Giant
Giant (© Sid Avery/mptvimages.com)
 
Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (Photo by Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West (Photo by Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Raging Bull
Raging Bull (Christine Loss)
 
Rear Window
Rear Window (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
 

Weekend Reading: Dames, Games, and Ghosts

As we put the finishing touches on our October reading and our Best of the Books of the Month lists, our attention turns to November as we try to get a jump on reading for the next round. (This good feeling of "being ahead" lasts about a week.) Here are a few things that we'll be taking a look at over the weekend. Happy Friday!

 

A Sudden Light

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Neal Thompson: Set almost entirely inside a crumbling mansion outside Seattle, this is a sprawling, big-hearted story about a boy, his woe-is-me father, his creepy-hot aunt, his demented grandfather, and the ghosts of his timber family’s past. For fans of Stein’s mega-bestseller, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and it’s four-legged hero/narrator, Enzo, this might not be the follow up you were expecting. It's got ghosts, not dogs. But in my view, that’s a good thing, and a bold move by Stein not to write Enzo II. (Available September 30)

Also reading:

 
Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong

Chris Schluep: I first read her book, Islam, about a decade ago. I followed that up with A History of God, which as much as any other source has informed my understanding of religion. In her new book, Armstrong traces the relationship between religion and violence through history—but her thesis is not what you might expect. She does not see a deep correlation between the two. That’s counter to what it seems most modern people think, which makes this book very interesting reading. She’s a fine, patient writer and super-smart. (Available October 28)

Also reading:

 
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

Seira Wilson: A suspenseful true crime story about 1920s Hollywood and the birth of the motion picture industry as we know it. In the high stakes world of production, distribution, and stardom, friends become enemies and rivalries run deep. Mann charts the trajectory of the times through the previously unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, and a man with his own deeply buried secrets. Would-be starlets, intoxicating fame, drugs, scandal, and power plays make for a fascinating nonfiction page-turner. (Available October 14)

Also reading:

 
The Game of Our Lives

The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt

Jon Foro: Although it gets a bit tiresome to hear soccer described as "the world's game," that distinction offers the unique opportunity to compare playing styles and leagues across the globe in an almost anthropological way ; i.e. by placing each in context of their economy and culture, they become lenses through which we can examine the larger character and history of a country itself. Goldblatt's book takes a look at England's wildly successful Premier League and its Thatcher-era resurrection from the ashes of hooliganism and tragedy. Also, I just love soccer a lot. (Available November 11)

Also reading:

 

Meet the Birds of Pandemonium

The Birds of PandemoniumWelcome to Pandemonium Aviaries. Here, more than 350 birds spanning 40 species have found sanctuary under the care of Michele Raffin. Her passion for these exotic creatures--through rehabilitation of injured animals, breeding, and the return of as many as possible to their natural habitats--is doing the hard work of (hopefully) pulling many back from the edge of extinction.

The Birds of Pandemonium is the story of Raffin's extraordinary efforts, but she's far from the only star. We meet many of the birds themselves, and through their personalities (and you'd be hard-pressed not to consider them individuals after reading these pages), we come to understand the challenges they face and the importance of ensuring their continued existence and success.

Enjoy these images and short biographies of some of the book's more memorable characters.

 

Meet Some of the Birds of Pandemonium

 

 Tico, Blue and gold macaw

Tico is extremely intelligent and can pick just about any lock. A trickster who loves to play practical jokes, he will mercilessly mimic other animals—and then watch as I become totally confused and slapstick ensues. Tico used to enjoy dancing with me, his body hugged to my chest, his head resting under my chin, until he dumped me for Mylie, a gorgeous Catalina macaw.

Tico, Blue and gold macaw

Tico, Blue and gold macaw


Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

When Gwen died of a heart attack, her grieving mate, Lancelot, cried so mournfully that I began the search for a new mate for him. Today, almost 40 percent of green-naped pheasant pigeons (GNPPs) in the U.S. live at Pandemonium, the largest population in the country. GNPPs are threatened due to the destruction of their native New Guinean tropical rain forest and there are very few places that have been successful at breeding them. Pandemonium Aviaries is one of those places.

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

 

Continue reading " Meet the Birds of Pandemonium" »

2014 National Book Award: The Longlists

The titles long listed for the National Book Awards have been trickling in this week and today the final category, Fiction, was announced.  Some of the titles that have appeared on our Best Books of the Month lists are included but we'll have to wait until October 15th to see which books make the list of finalists.  We usually do a pool in the office with our predictions for the winners in each category--last year our Director, Sara Nelson, was the most prescient.  Do you have any thoughts about who should take home the National Book Awards this year?

NBAlonglistFBCollage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction:

 

Nonfiction:

 

Young People's Literature:

 

Poetry:

 

 

The Gray Areas of Gray Matter: Author Matt Richtel on Information Overload

A Deadly WanderingIn 2006, a pair of rocket scientists died on a Utah highway, killed in a collision with a student named Reggie Shaw, who had been texting at the time of the accident. A Deadly Wandering uses this moment to launch itself into an investigation/rumination on the increasing presence of technology in our lives, probing for answers to the question How much is too much? This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it. The result is anything but: Richtel has combined his savvy as a New York Times science reporter with his skill as a writer of technology-infused thrillers to weave two separate, if related, stories together: the tragedy—and ultimate redemption—of Reggie Shaw, and the deleterious effects of technology on our brains, bodies, and culture. A Deadly Wandering is a riveting blend of humanity and science.

We asked Richtel some questions about Shaw and the growing influence of information in our brains and our culture, and his response was much more detailed and enthusiastic than we could have hoped for--it's the same energy that drives this masterful work of narrative nonfiction.

A Deadly Wandering, available in hardcover and Kindle on September 23, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month for September 2014.

 


Matt Richtel on A Deadly Wandering

How did you come to the story of Reggie Shaw?

I first met Reggie for a story about distracted driving that I wrote for The New York Times. In more than two decades in journalism, I’ve met hundreds of fascinating people. Few like Reggie. He has a depth of character, a candor, quiet wit, the All-American kid laid bare through tragedy, dark truth and, ultimately, redemption. He became the first person, or one of the first, charged with negligent homicide in a texting and driving death. And he was, in many ways, the last person you’d ever expect that to happen to. Ordinary guy, good guy, turned hunted and haunted criminal, turned hero.

At what point did you realize that this story had potential beyond the tragedy of the accident? What compelled you to write the larger story about technology and society?

Although the Reggie story stuck with me, and he and I stayed in contact, I wasn’t particularly compelled to write a book about it, not at first. Instead, I kept studying and thinking about the science: what was so alluring about technology; what was it doing to our brains? Why would Reggie, a thoughtful, smart 19-year-old kid send a meaningless text while driving at dawn in the rain, while going 55 miles an hour? I realized that I had formulated some ideas about just how magnetic our devices had become, how irresistible, and they were steeped in science that is both decades old and emerging. I’d talk to scientists about my thesis and they’d say: Yes, yes, you have to write about this. Something is happening to our brains and you’ve got to write about it.

But those were just ideas. And, from my standpoint, ideas don’t make good books. Certainly not great books. Great books are stories. They are about people, characters, and passions. That’s my bias, anyway. I want to be swept away by a narrative. Reading, to me, should be fun. Think: Unbroken or Into Thin Air.

In the years I spent learning about the science, I got to know the scientists. You want to talk about characters. These are brilliant, funny, quirky, opinionated people. They laid the groundwork for how we, as a society, understand the brain. They also have their quirks. One of the foremost experts has a license plate that reads “attend.” When I asked him why, he said: “Because turn off your #*^& cell phone is too long.” Another neuroscientist holds crazy Friday Night parties in San Francisco with the most famous technology people, and with musicians and the digerati. One of the great early scholars, whose work after World War II helped shape how we think about the brain and its relationship with technology, told me incredible stories about the early days of neuroscience.

Now I was starting to see story lines; the story of how we understand the brain, the people who help us understand it. There was a context around Reggie’s story, and, at that point, I didn’t realize just how incredible his story was.

So I spent many months talking to Reggie and the people around him in the little town in Northern Utah that he calls home. I heard extraordinary stories from Reggie’s family, those who defended him, hunted him and prosecuted him, sentenced him. It’s not so much that their stories were so unusual, but they were so candid, so open – stories about terrible childhood abuse, personal tragedy, minor life infractions, small town reflection, great love and loyalty, lust. As one character described Reggie’s town: it is like Friday Night Lights. These personal tales, far from being incidental or irrelevant to a story of distracted driving, were quite integral. The way these characters see themselves, and the world, informed how they saw Reggie, and the idea of attention, and the idea of distraction. They are us, so is Reggie, but willing to share in vivid candor their role in a great drama.

Now I had the potential for a great book. At its core, it is the weaving of two narratives. One is a tragic car wreck, gumshoe investigation, historic prosecution, defiant defendant and zealous pursuers, all glued together an intense human drama. The other is a scientific journey, one that starts with the birth of neuroscience in 1850, and tells the very human stories of the neuroscientists and their discoveries. The two story lines intersect, remarkably enough, because one of the leading scholars in neuroscience and the science of attention wound up testifying in Reggie’s pre-trial hearing.

In sum, the book weaves together these narratives: an irresistible human drama with the story of how we understand the brain and its relationship to technology. Through the lens of these stories, we come to understand the value of attention, its fragility, and the assault it faces in the digital age. The book is a narrative, in the truest sense, not a lecture, told through story and character. At least that is what’s intended.

Author Matt Richtel (photo: Meredith Barad)

The book includes some of the latest science about humans and our ability to absorb and accommodate an ever increasing amount of information and input. What surprised you the most in the research?

Here’s what most surprised me: we often are not using our electronic devices for the reasons we think we’re using them or say we’re using them. We say we need to stay in touch. We say we’re afraid of missing out on something important. That’s certainly true some of the time. But much of the time it is not true. We are using our gadgets because we can’t help ourselves; we are so accustomed to the stimulation that, in its absence, we feel bored. We love to click the keys and make something happen on the screen. We love to feel the little adrenaline rush when we make new information appear, whether or not it is relevant or valuable. The devices are like slot machines, with levers to pull to give us a squirt of dopamine. There is a debate whether or not to call this “addiction” or merely extremely habit forming. In any case, I now look out our devices much differently than I did several years ago. These are brain stimulation devices. That doesn’t mean they’re all bad, not at all. One of the reasons they are so stimulating is that they can and do lead to the exchange of valuable information, crucial communications, entertainment. But not as much as we imagine or advertise.

That thing in your pocket? It’s got you by the brain and it is not letting go.

How much is too much? At what point do tools designed to improve efficiency have the opposite effect?

There is this wonderful study I learned about for the book. It’s the “chocolate cake” study, and it helps answer this question. In the study (I’m oversimplifying a bit), subjects entered a room and were asked to choose whether they wanted to eat a piece of chocolate cake or have a bowl of fruit. Here’s the twist: some of the study subjects, prior to entering the room, were asked to remember a handful of numbers. The scientists discovered something remarkable: the study subjects who were asked to remember numbers tended to choose the chocolate cake, while the study subjects who didn’t have to remember numbers chose the fruit.

What’s the point?

The brain is very sensitive to information overload, even in small doses. The amount of information we are remembering and juggling can impact even small decisions, and in unconscious ways. Now translate that into how we use our devices; if we are overloaded, even a bit, it can impact how we relate to every aspect of our lives. It can, without being too hyperbolic, impact the idea of free will. Will you choose fruit or chocolate cake? Will you make a good decision about work, your children, etc, etc?

So, to answer your question directly, I believe you need to create enough down time from your devices to clear your head. You need to be free of information overload to even make decisions about how much to use your device. In concrete terms, take a walk without your device, take a Saturday or Sunday with the power button in the “off” position. Take a vacation where you disconnect altogether. This includes disconnecting from radio, TV and other media, which are sources of information, obviously. Disconnecting, I believe, and the science supports this, will give you a clearer head to figure out how much you need to stay disconnected to make good, clear-headed decisions. It will differ person-to-person, but, whoever you are, a clear head is needed to make the good call.

What do we find so alluring about information? Where in our relationship with technology do you think it began in earnest?

In a word, information is “survival.” Our need for information – from knowing that fire burns to knowing what time to show up at a meeting – determines so much in our daily lives. That is the first reason that information is alluring.

In that respect, language itself is a crucial technology, a critical human innovation that lets us communicate information in a short-hand way. If I can tell you that fire burns, then you don’t have to thrust your hand into the fire to find out for yourself.

With books, we could distribute ideas to masses. With phones, we added sound and intonation and urgency. And now with mobile devices, we can do so from anywhere, anytime.

Who could deny the extraordinary utility? These devices tap into the deepest primitive need to be informed and to respond to sources of information to find out if they represent opportunity or threat. One way to think about it is to think about the idea of being a caveperson, eons ago, in the jungle. If someone tapped on your shoulder, you’d have to turn around immediately to find out if that person was a threat, or maybe was offering food. Today, when the phone rings or a text comes in, it’s like being tapped on the shoulder by anyone, anywhere in the world. Quite literally, a billion people could be tapping you on the shoulder. How can you resist this primitive call for information – even when you’re behind the wheel?

In this respect, the technology is playing so powerfully to our primitive wiring that it can “hijack the brain.” That’s how the scientists put it to me. The lure of the device overpowers us to the point where it diverts focus away from other demands, like driving, or dinner with your spouse and kids or even walking down the street (for those who’ve walked into a tree while checking a sports score on the phone, you know you are).

Do you hope that this book makes readers reconsider their own digital habits? Have you changed your own?

Yes, I hope they will reconsider their habits, on the road and off of it. I hope they will take a complete break when driving and then, when not driving, take regular breaks from digital stimulation. I’ve done both. The reason is because I’ve learned, through lots of research, that I have limited brain power. We all do. And the more we are constantly stimulated, the more we deplete our neurological tanks, text by text, angry-bird game by angry-bird game. Until we are depleted to the point of being unable to process information, whether about work, our relationships, homework, and so on. This is doubly true of young people, whose brains remain under development. The more they are constantly stimulated, the less able they are to make good decisions and the more they crave the stimulation, creating a wicked cycle. But why do I care whether people are connected all the time? Where do I get off sounding so preachy? Perhaps I should retreat to the position of husband, father, friend, co-worker; I’d like to be around people who are engaged with the world, paying attention to it, listening, processing. I’d like to be a person like that. I think it makes me a better dad and husband, a better voter and writer, and thinker.

Is legislation an effective tool against “distracted driving”? What would you say to those who would decry “nanny state” prohibitions? Is there anything that can change our behavior?

I want to be careful not to be too prescriptive given the fact I’m a journalist and a New York Times reporter, and to try to maintain some objective distance. That said, two things are very clear: (1) texting while driving is extremely dangerous (in the moment like being blind drunk); (2) people know it’s dangerous and they do it anyway. In other words, the problem isn’t about attitudes. The attitudes are already consistent with the risks. But the behaviors are not. People continue to take extreme risk.

What we know historically is that behaviors change through public education and tough laws. The fact that behaviors haven’t changed – even though attitudes have changed – suggests to some people in public health that the laws must be toughened. Without fear of real penalty, like big fines or loss of driving privileges, people might not change behavior, so goes the theory. If you feel that’s the nanny state, then you might feel that drunk driving laws are the nanny state too.

Finally, some public health people feel the current no-texting laws are confusing: you’re allowed to use your phone to dial or call up a music program but not to text. When can you touch your phone and when can you not? It’s a gray area for drivers and a gray area for law enforcement. Without more clarity, these folks say, it’s going to be hard to get behaviors consistent with what everyone seems to know: it is potentially deadly to look down at your device, manipulate it, even get so lost talking on it on it that your attention gets diverted from the road.

Will the Reggie Shaw case become a touchstone moment or a missed opportunity?

I certainly don’t think it’s a missed opportunity. Put another way: Reggie pours his heart out to audiences around the country, telling them not to get distracted while driving. In that way, he has redeemed himself like no other person I’ve ever met. Many people I talked to about him – people who once demonized him – now say he is an American hero. So no, not a missed opportunity.

But is it a touchstone? Good question. I think that it can be if we are ready for his message. This, I would say, is true of lots of people in history, leaders, whose messages have been unpopular, right up until the point they’ve become popular, the public receptive. Reggie and others like him will become leaders when we are ready to listen. And I don’t know yet whether we’re ready. We may not know until it happens.

Which other writers of “narrative nonfiction” do you admire?

I’ll mention three books and writers.

For me, Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a work of magic and art of the highest order. It’s about the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, the things they carried. Honestly, I’m not sure that it qualifies completely as non-fiction in that it plays with truth and our emotions as it essentially asks the question: what is truth and what is perception of truth? In that way, it is a kind of new new journalism, an acknowledgement and embodiment of the idea truth and reality depend on the camera angle and the camera man’s perspective. And all told within the confines of a great story.

Similarly The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, about the execution of Gary Gilmore, is a story that is an incredible personal saga and story while also, almost incidentally, raising great moral questions. The reporting is so detailed, so excruciatingly vivid. In fairness, Mailer calls this “a true-life novel,” suggesting he took some liberties. But I can’t imagine there are many, knowing how much reporting went in and how well documented that reporting is.

But if I had to pick a model of narrative nonfiction, at least for purposes of my book, A Deadly Wandering, it would be Into Think Air. Simply, it’s an irresistible story, magnetic, impossible to put down and then, by the end, you realize you were so swept up in a story that you didn’t realize you learned a whole bunch about a subject that may or may not have been interesting to you. Same with Unbroken. And, to a large extent, The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. This is high art; teaching under the auspices of entertaining, or is it the other way around?

Portrait of "The City": San Francisco, 1940-1960

San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960As a fourth-generation San Franciscan, few are as familiar with the City by the Bay as photographer Fred Lyon. His new book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960, not only captures it iconic sights and sites--the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, cable cars, the hills and the fog--but also the iconoclastic, if sometimes off-beat geniuses that made it great--a group to which Lyon firmly belongs. We're thrilled to present dozen incredible images from the book, accompanied by Lyon's own captions.

Learn more about Fred Lyon in the "Living Through the Lens" trailer at the bottom of this page.


San Francisco in the 1940s was irresistible. It still is, but for a brash young photographer recovering from New York’s fashion world, it was feast. Two bridges, steep hills with tiny cable cars, fog, Chinatown, plus a booming postwar optimism, all fed my hungry camera. It seldom had a chance to cool off.

In those headlong days it was impossible to imagine living past thirty.  Anyhow, who would want to hang around when life’s over?  Now however, as I turn 90, Princeton Architectural Press has given these San Francisco images a new life in our book San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940 – 1960. What a birthday present!  

Seen again, from this distance and in the context of change, the content displays a relevance  beyond nostalgia. The City isn’t static, it’s a work in progress.  Still, as we plunge forward, our recent history can guide us, perhaps soothing and even providing an occasional chuckle.

Notes on a handful of images:

Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, seen from atop Russian Hill, framed by the windshield of my Riley drophead coupe (separate fenders and headlights!).
 
Cityscape looking south from a plane over the bay.  In the foreground, Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, while downtown fills the distance with newer buildings and the south waterfront.
 
Above the Golden Gate Bridge:  The pilots of the small seaplanes I used for aerial photography never wanted to go as low as I did during our flyovers of the Golden Gate Bridge, but this viewpoint has an immediacy that excites me.  Old Fort Point nestles under the South Anchorage (at top).  And just look at that traffic.  It hasn’t been that sparse in decades.
 
The crew that paints the Golden Gate Bridge works from one end to the other and then starts all over again.  During the weeks of shooting this story my role  changed from a curiosity and the painters became protective, averting several reckless moves of the demented “camera guy”.
 
This display of laundry was a familiar sight in North Beach, traditionally an enclave of Italian immigrants and Chinese, in the days before automatic appliances.
 
Seen through a telephoto lens from Telegraph hill, the Lombard Street grapevine zig-zags down Russian Hill.  Headlights trace autos’ wiggly brick path.
 
Small boys at play on a steep hill above Broadway in North Beach.  This vertical city encourages imaginative vehicles for a swoop down the slope.
 
A pair of old skates and a couple of young buddies often equaled two “coasters” for the steep sidewalks of North Beach.  Daring races often ended abruptly, with a scrape or two.
 
A cable car at the foot of California Street prepares for its crawl up from the waterfront and the financial district to the top of Nob Hill.
 
On Grant Avenue in Chinatown, a street lamp is readied for the annual festivities of Chinese New Year.
 
Castle Street, on the south slope of Telegraph Hill, frames Coit Tower and epitomizes San Francisco’s reputation as the capital of film noir.
 
A foggy night at Land’s End, above Sutro Baths.
 

Exclusive: Senator John McCain Reviews Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Patton"

Senator John McCainThrough their series of best-selling books--including Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot and Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever--Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard have revisited the sudden, unexpected deaths of several of history's most significant figures, and how those terrible events echoed across time and the world. We are honored to present this guest review by Senator John McCain of the latest volume, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General.

Senator McCain is the author of several books, including Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir and Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War, due in November 2014.


In Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have written a lively, provocative account of the death of General George S. Patton and the important events in the final year of the Allied victory in Europe, which Patton’s brilliant generalship of the American Third Army did so much to secure.

The fourth book in the bestselling Killing series is rich in fascinating details, and riveting battle scenes. The authors have written vivid descriptions of a compelling cast of characters, major historical figures such as Eisenhower, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and others, as well as more obscure players in the great drama of the Second World War and the life and death of Patton.

O’Reilly and Dugard express doubts about the official explanation for Patton’s demise from injuries he suffered in an automobile accident. They surmise that the General’s outspokenness about his controversial views on postwar security, particularly his animosity toward the Soviets, our erstwhile allies, might have made him a target for assassination. They cast a suspicious eye toward various potential culprits from Josef Stalin to wartime espionage czar “Wild Bill” Donovan and a colorful OSS operative, Douglas Bazata, who claimed later in life to have murdered Patton.

Certainly, there are a number of curious circumstances that invite doubt and speculation, Bazata’s admission for one. Or that the drunken sergeant who drove a likely stolen truck into Patton’s car inexplicably was never prosecuted or even reprimanded. But whether you share their suspicions or not this is popular history at its most engrossing.

Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly From accounts of the terribly costly battle for Fort Driant in the hills near Metz to the Third Army’s crowning achievement, its race to relieve the siege of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, the reader experiences all the drama of the “great crusade” in its final, thrilling months.

The authors’ profiles of world leaders and Patton’s contemporaries are economic but manage to offer fresh insights into the personalities of well-known men. Just as compelling are the finely wrought sketches of people of less renown but who played important parts in the events.

There is PFC Robert Holmund, who fought and died heroically at Fort Driant having done all he could and then some to take his impossible objective. PFC Horace Woodring, Patton’s driver, who revered the general, went to his grave mystified by the cause and result of the accident that killed his boss. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s young son, Manfred, exchanged a formal farewell handshake with him after learning his father would be dead in a quarter hour, having been made to commit suicide to prevent the death and dishonor of his family.

These and many other captivating accounts of the personal and profound make Killing Patton a pleasure to read. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in World War II history and the extraordinary man who claimed Napoleon’s motto, “audacity, audacity, always audacity,” as his own.

Work Worth Doing: "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"

The RooseveltsFor more than 30 years, through an impressive collection of highly acclaimed, long-form documentary films, Ken Burns has established himself as one of the premier chroniclers of American history. Geoffrey C. Ward has been his collaborator on many of these projects--including The Civil War, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, and Baseball--and the co-author of the lavish books that accompany them.

This Sunday (September 14) marks the debut of their latest effort, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on PBS. Ward is no stranger to the subject, having written several books on FDR, including Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament, and the new companion book lives up to the high standards of its predecessors.

We asked Ward about his partnership with Burns, the new book, the Roosevelts, and how they might fare in today's political environment.

(The photos below are excerpted from The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.)

 


 

You’ve collaborated with Ken Burns on so many touchstone documentaries, The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc. How did your partnership come about?
    
I had left the editorship of American Heritage and was beginning a new career as a writer some 32 years ago, when Ken invited me up to Walpole, NH to view a film he was making on the Shakers. We hit it off and he asked me if I’d consider writing a film script. I didn’t know enough to say no and so wrote “Huey Long.” I loved the work and the collaboration and we’ve been at it ever since.
 
What’s the extent of your involvement with the film side? Do you contribute to the documentaries (and vice versa), and to what extent? Or are you masters of your respective domains?

This really is a collaboration. Ken loves words as much as he loves images. I love images as much as I love words. I’m in the trenches with the rest of Ken’s extraordinary film-making team from beginning to end, writing, rewriting, rethinking, but in the end his word is final. The books we’ve done together are mostly left to me but they wouldn’t exist without the films they accompany.   

 

The Roosevelts


How are the topics of the documentaries chosen? What do you look for in selecting your subject matter?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer. A subject has to say something about who we are as Americans and it has to engage our enthusiasm. Ken loves baseball. I love jazz. Dayton Duncan always wanted to do Lewis and Clark and the National Parks. Lynn Novick became fascinated by Prohibition and then by the Vietnam War, the series on which we’re currently working. One of Ken’s greatest strengths is his fearlessness in taking on big intimidating subjects and then successfully wrestling them to the ground.
 
You’ve written several books about FDR; did any additional research on Teddy and Eleanor Roosevelt change—or add additional context—to your knowledge of FDR?

There have been good films and whole libraries of good books about the individual Roosevelts. In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History  we set out to do something different – to connect the dots, to make it clear that it was no accident that all three belonged to the same extraordinary clan; that party allegiances aside, far more united than divided them; that without the unforgettable example set by Theodore Roosevelt we would likely never have heard of Franklin or Eleanor.

The new book is different from those we’ve done before. Pictures and text are more evenly balanced; in telling our story each is meant to augment the other. The book is intended for readers of every age but because big, richly illustrated books like this one first drew me to history as a boy, it’s my hope that there are kids out there whose interest in our past will be kindled by this one.

The surprises for me were mostly pictorial – we’ve found photographs and footage never seen before, including my favorite discovery, a truly historic picture in which a young and worshipful FDR watches from the crowd as his celebrated fifth cousin takes the oath of office as president, the first of five presidential inaugurations to have a Roosevelt at the center of things.  
    

The Roosevelts


In some ways they seem like disparate personalities or politicians—Teddy was a Republican, FDR a Democrat. Were there common threads that you discovered, connections that may have seemed unintuitive?

They were undeniably different in style and temperament but in the end it was the similarities and not the differences between them that mattered most to history. They each championed the working man and earned the enmity of the well-to-do among whom they’d been raised to manhood. Both loved people and politics and took action to preserve America’s natural heritage. Theodore and Franklin – and Eleanor, as well – overcame handicaps that might easily have destroyed them. And they all believed that the United States had a vital role to play beyond its borders.

But above all, all three Roosevelts shared Theodore’s conviction that national problems demanded national solutions, that the federal government had enormous power to do good, that at its best, government was simply “Us, … you and me.” That may not be a widely shared view these days, but the Roosevelts proved in their time how valid it could be.

 
What characteristics separate them from today’s politicians?

It’s always dangerous to speculate about what leaders from one era would do when confronted by problems faced by leaders in another – though I’m sure Theodore Roosevelt would be astonished to learn that it took more than century to enact a form of the national health care he first proposed in 1912.

I’m afraid that neither Theodore nor Franklin Roosevelt could be elected president in our time – TR because his frenetic energy and shrill delivery would be too hot for television, and FDR because today’s intrusive camera crews would compete to see who could get the most dramatic footage revealing his physical handicap.
 
As T.R.’s niece, did Eleanor, through shared force of personality or convictions, influence FDR’s thinking or policy?

Eleanor’s owed much of her relentless energy and inbred sense of obligation to her beloved Uncle Theodore and was never entirely convinced that her own husband was the greater man. But she had a profound influence on FDR, beginning when she first showed him the harsh reality of tenement life on the Lower East Side and continuing through his presidency when she acted – sometimes to his annoyance – as his progressive conscience.
 
It’s interesting that your collaborations with Burns focus squarely on singularly American experiences (a good series name, if it weren’t already taken). What about the Roosevelts-- taken collectively or as individuals, or both—makes them quintessentially American?

I’m wary of generalizing about national characteristics. But all three Roosevelts did share at least two qualities that I’d like to think are distinctively American – an inbred impatience with ideology and an unwavering belief in a better future for their country.
 
 

The Roosevelts

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