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Thursday, December 31, 2015


“NUDE READING” 1994, Lithograph, 30 1/2 x 36 1/4 inches (77.47 x 92.08 cm), Edition of 60. Available at, 212.588.9871
GUEST BLOG—By American Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York in 1923. Lichtenstein studied painting while in the M.F.A. program at Ohio State University in the late 1940's. In 1951, three solo exhibitions of his work were organized in New York, where he moved in 1957. As his work progressed, Lichtenstein began to explore a visual and stylistic connection between the work of Picasso and other Cubists and the visual devices and images from American popular culture cartoons and advertisements.  In 1962, his first solo exhibition was held at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Drawing heavily from pop culture's stylized and concise imagery found in ads and comic books, Lichtenstein created a large body of prints and paintings, establishing himself as one of the foremost American Pop Artists. His paintings sell for multi-millions in auction and his work may be found in major museums throughout the world. A major retrospective of his work was held in 2013 at the Tate Modern in London.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), American pop artist

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


OUR TWO CENTS WORTH--One of the weighty issues our government is mulling is whether or not to quit minting the venerable one cent coin.  Published staff reports from the U.S. Treasury reveal that it costs two cents to produce one new shiny penny.  One recent year America’s mints produced eight billion new pennies at a cost of $130 million.

Amazing, that’s akin to one year’s salary for staff of this blog.

Eliminating the penny has been good for laughs for comedians like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.  Even NPR has entered the debate by assigning its top money correspondent Chris Arnold to pen a feature on the copper coin.  On a slow news day, NPR posted Arnold’s detailed probe of the topic (as only NPR can do—which is a good thing).

NPR noted that if the mints stopped making the penny it would be a glorious day for penny hoarders.  Thinking of those penny grubers is with no more pennies being produced their stash would automatically jump in value and also at the same time validate serious mental issues.

After studying the situation it comes down to this:  If the government feels the penny is no longer worth producing then why on this green earth do they mint eight billion of them?   Why not create a mere billion cents, which would cut costs and keep those hoarders busy and we would not lose part of our heritage. 

And, NPR did point out that most Americans don’t want the penny to go away.

Now, let’s go back to probing serious issues like Donald Trump’s hair or lack of it.

The Lincoln penny at the top of this blog posting functions as a camera calibration target attached to NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars the night of Aug. 5 to Aug. 6, 2012.

The calibration target for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument also includes color references, a metric bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration. The MAHLI adjustable-focus, color camera at the end of Curiosity's robotic arm can be used for taking extreme close-ups of rocks and soil on Mars, as well as images from greater distances.

The penny is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, and it gives the public a familiar object for perceiving size easily when it will be viewed by MAHLI on Mars.

The specific coin, provided by MAHLI's principal investigator, Ken Edgett, is a 1909 "VDB" penny. That was the first year Lincoln pennies were minted and the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The VDB refers to the initials of the coin's designer, Victor D. Brenner, which are on the reverse side. Brenner based the coin's low-relief portrait of Lincoln on a photograph taken Feb. 9, 1864, three day's before Lincoln's 55th birthday, by Anthony Berger in the Washington, D.C., studio of Mathew Brady.

This photograph of the penny on Curiosity was taken in August 2011 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center as the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft was being prepared for launch. The mission launched on Nov. 26, 2011. It will deliver the rover Curiosity to Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. With MAHLI and nine other science instruments, Curiosity will investigate whether the area has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, supplied MAHLI and three other cameras for the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built Curiosity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


MUSIC EVERYWHERE--Music is the real language of Cuba and is spoken in clubs, hotels, homes, schools and street corners throughout the country.  Here a Havana arts & social center jazz group performs for U.S. visitors.  Note the invented musical instrument on the right, which produced lively Latin vibes all afternoon.
A jazz oriented tour of Cuba is looking to fill seats on its trip from San Diego, March 25 thru March 31, 2016.  Called “Cuba: Latin Beats,” the tour is organized by San Diego City College KSDS radio station (aka Jazz 88.3 FM).

Join host Chris Springer and fellow KSDS listeners on an in-depth music and cultural exploration of the isle of Cuba. Enjoy hearing the famous rhythms of son Cubano and rumba in the very place they were invented. Visit the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana’s botanical gardens and many of Hemingway’s haunts.

In addition, you’ll stroll through the colorful plazas of Old Havana,enjoy fun salsa and drumming lessons and cruise the Malec√≥n in a perfectly restored 1950s Chevy. This custom “people to people” journey has been specially designed for the KSDS traveler who is interested in music, art, history, architecture and culture.

For more info or to book the tour go to
On the home page find the Cuba Tour icon and follow the directions.

The trip is via Earthbound Expeditions:

This tour company and others like (Gate 1 Travel and Roads Scholars) specialize in sanctioned trips to Cuba.

VERSATILE--Don't let this string Cuban sextet fool you.  They were anything but stuffy. After performing Mozart for American tourists they closed the performance with Brazilian and U.S. numbers ranging from Juan Carlos Jobim to Miles Davis.  Everyone ended up dancing with the "band" at the end.  That's Cuba

Images on this blog were taken last spring on a Gate 1 Travel tour to Cuba.  Photography by Michael Shess.

Other trips to Cuba:
Road Scholar is a U.S. State Dept. approved travel agency dealing in People to People tours to Cuba.

Monday, December 28, 2015


Columnist Mary McGrory holds court among reporters and observers at the 1973 Watergate hearings.
Before there was Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins or Molly Ivins, there was Mary McGrory (1918-2004).  In a sassy biography titled, “Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism,” its author, John Norris, delves into the world of the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post.

Norris recently held court at a book show and tell at the National Press Club in Washington DC where he pointed out McGrory was a trailblazing columnist, who achieved national syndication and reported from the front lines of American politics for five decades.

From her first assignment reporting on the Army–McCarthy hearings to her Pulitzer-winning coverage of Watergate and controversial observations of President George Bush II after September 11, McGrory humanized the players on the great national stage while establishing herself as a uniquely influential voice.

Norris paints scenes, where she flirted, drank, cajoled, and jousted with the most important figures in American life, breaking all the rules in the journalism textbook.

Yet, her writing was admired and feared by such notables as Lyndon Johnson (who also tried to seduce her) and her friend Bobby Kennedy who observed, “Mary is so gentle—until she gets behind a typewriter.” Her soirees, filled with Supreme Court justices, senators, interns, and copy boys alike, were legendary.

John Norris
John Norris is the author of several books, including the “Disaster Gypsies,” a memoir of his work in the field of emergency relief. John has published commentary in scores of outlets including, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal., and elsewhere. He has a graduate degree in public administration. He currently is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peace building Initiative at American Progress.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


The following essay discusses the work of Anthony Marra and other contemporary war novelists.  More on his novel at the end of this blog.
Editor’s Note: New America, formerly New America Foundation, is a non-partisan think tank in the United States. It focuses on a range of public policy issues, including national security studies, technology, asset building, health, gender, energy, education, and the economy. Based in Washington, D.C., the organization kindly shares its editorial content found in its various publications and papers with other not-for-profit media, such as this advertising free blog.  The following essay was published December 3, 2015.  For more articles by New America go to

GUEST BLOG—By Emily Tamkin, Assistant Editor, New America
Weekly--Both scientific studies and literary luminaries tell us that reading literary fiction can make us more empathetic.  Inhabiting the worlds of novels and short stories can help us step out of our own personal lives and into another’s and back again—leaving us more understanding than we were before of experiences beyond our own.

But can it make us more understanding of issues beyond our own, too? Can we, as we come to the end of 2015 surrounded at once by near-constant images of calamity and best-of books lists, become more empathetic or politically aware by supplementing the news articles and white papers with a piece of fiction?

The answer, according to some of the authors who are writing about real-world issues in fictional stories, is that we can try.

The authors, for their part, have dealt with a wide variety of subjects with which we readers can use fiction as a vehicle for examining geopolitical conflict—and, perhaps, learn what it might mean to be geopolitically empathetic in the process.

New America Middle East fellow Zaha Hassan is addressing the plight of Palestinians in her upcoming novel Die Standing Like Trees. An international lawyer by training, Hassan recently wrote that she chose to use literature to explore this topic so that “those observing events unfolding in Palestine/Israel can imagine the humanity in the very real stories of Palestinians and the context of their struggle for freedom and self-determination.”

Similarly, Anthony Marra brought the wars in Chechnya to an American audience in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno (disclaimer: both made the author of this article cry).
In Ghost Fleet, August Cole and New America Strategist Peter Singer use the novel form to imagine World War III.

And writer Xiaolu Guo uses her books to explore “the issue of exile, the issue of complex relation between art and politics, and how artists try to survive in a political environment” (this, according to Guo in an email). The list goes on. But, between the titles, the question remains: How do writers bring the geopolitical to fictional life?

Can we become more empathetic or politically aware by supplementing the news articles and white papers with a piece of fiction?

Some draw upon personal or professional experiences of their own. Hassan wrote of her mother’s Palestinian generation, while Singer spent years as a consultant for the U.S. military and intelligence community. But both had written far more non-fiction about their subjects before beginning their novelistic ventures. Singer wrote a novel (as opposed to an article, or an essay, or any other kind of book) because he was interested in exploring not only what a World War III would look like, but also what it would actually be and feel like.

He said in an interview for this article that, though he had done Hollywood consulting, fiction writing was different from his other endeavors. He noted that the fiction writer must focus not just on what’s important, but also on what’s interesting—and that the introduction of characters of his own imagination made editing infinitely more difficult, not only because, in his war thriller, “you could cut one sentence and throw off everything four scenes later,” but also because the characters “are your creations,” and therefore painful to destroy.

While Singer had expert knowledge prior to writing his book (including its 374 endnotes), other authors had to be students of their subjects before they could be scribes. Marra, an American, recalled in a Skype interview for this piece that he “arrived in Russia in 2007. I was 22. I lived down the street from a military cadet academy and I would see these military cadets marching … seeing these teenagers march past this conflict they might one day join … What separated them? It was, of course, Chechnya.” Four or five years later, he said, he set about trying to find a novel in English set in wartime Chechnya. When he couldn’t find one, he wrote the book that he wanted to read.

As an American, Marra had to educate himself on the subject of Chechnya specifically and Russia more broadly—and know that he was doing the same for his audience. “I had to write it knowing that 99 percent of [the novel’s] readers would have no familiarity with the history of Chechnya … I suppose I know that at no point have I ever claimed that I'm an expert. There are people who have devoted their lives to studying this. They're the ones I list in my bibliography. I was in no way giving voice to a people. I was concerned with about a dozen characters.”

To inform while entertaining: That’s the balance that Singer described as “useful fiction.” A good novel that deals with geopolitical issues well, Singer stressed, must meet both terms. This informational element is a distinguishing feature of geopolitical literature.

If writers are able to render fiction useful in exploring geopolitics, it is because geopolitics is ultimately made up of humans, and fiction is a uniquely effective platform for exploring humanity. 

None of this is to say that novels can—or should—replace white papers or news articles. According to Marra, “Nothing kills fiction more quickly than realizing you're getting a history lesson. I was much less interested in politics at the level of the Kremlin, the decisions made by rebel commanders. I was much more interested in how those decisions play many, many miles away.”

And, as Singer pointed, out, the risk of crossing the line between art and advocacy and losing an audience in the process is not unique to literature—he noted that the lukewarm response to war movies that politicized opposition to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Green Zone, was likely linked to the reality that people don’t turn to art for advocacy. “It can’t just be whatever nonfiction point you’re trying to make,” he said.

Or, as Guo put it in an email interview, “I think fiction is one of the best ways to explore politics and our problematic reality … But for me, emotion and characters are the first things in a story, without genuine characters and artistic narrative the rest [doesn’t] work.”

So, how do writers examine geopolitics through fiction and help readers do the same? Some write about what they know. Some educate themselves about what they don’t. They place their prose in a well-researched time and place. They create a painstakingly studied context for their creations. And then they hold themselves to the same standards as any other literary author: They create stories and fill them with characters with whom readers can live and feel, if only for a little while.

Because, in the end, if writers are able to render fiction useful in exploring geopolitics, it is because geopolitics is ultimately made up of humans, and fiction is a uniquely effective platform for exploring humanity. It doesn’t turn the personal into the geopolitical, but it can move the political back into the pathos of the personal.

And while Guo said that “any art form” can be used to explore political issues, as long as “an artist really has something genuine to say,” Marra seemed to think fiction uniquely up to the empathetic task.

“The real beauty and miracle of fiction,” he said, “is that it lets us walk in someone else's shoes. It drops us through the Earth and next to people I would never otherwise meet. I read the newspaper and [I] read about numbers. How many people were killed here, how many people were displaced there? It's hard to feel much for a number. But you can feel an enormous amount for people, for individuals, when you hear their stories. There's no form of creating, nurturing, fostering that sort of care for strangers quite like a novel as a vehicle for empathy.” He paused, then concluded, as though finishing a particularly powerful chapter on Chechnya, “It's unparalleled.”

New America’s weekly digital magazine champions innovative thinking confronting today’s world of pressing challenges.

New York Times Notable Book of the Year * Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year

Amazon Notes: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.