The Luncheon Society—Manhattan/Larry Berman on life of Navy CNO Elmo Zumwalt and the US Navy/March 21, 2013/Bar Americain

Larry BermanLarry Berman returned to The Luncheon Society with another new book on the Vietnam era. He joined us in Manhattan on his new biography on Elmo Zumwalt, the youngest Chief of Naval Operation is history and who is chiefly responsible for modernizing the US Navy.  From 1970 until 1974, his management style lessened the racial tensions, raised morale as the Vietnam War wore down, and dragged the service into the 20th century.

ZumwaltLarry Berman is also an old professor of mine when I was an undergraduate at UC-Davis.  There he wrote three well-regarded policy books of Vietnam, including Planning a Tragedy-The Americanization of the war in Vietnam,” which made the case that Lyndon Johnson knew that he was going to escalate in South Vietnam but craved a consensus position that would create unity from within his government.  He found out the hard way that what works for domestic political consensus failed him in foreign affairs. Lyndon-Johnson’s War/The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam, takes us to 1968, when the failure of the decision-making process in July 1965 (from Berman’s first book) is fully observed as a train wreck in policy and politics.  The third book, No Peace, No Honor/Nixon, Kissinger, and the Betrayal of South Vietnam, Berman looks at the last years of the American involvement in South Vietnam, as the war winding down. Both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger never expected the North Vietnamese to honor the terms of the agreement and once the terms were broken, they would be able to resume bombing runs over various North Vietnamese targets.

For me, as an undergraduate and a student of Larry Berman, I found myself reviewing what few saw at that time, recently declassified documents of the Johnson White House, notes which led up to the decision to escalate American troops.  I felt like a fly on the wall and the arguments between McNamara, Rusk, George Ball, and others came alive throughout the rooms in the White House.  It was like watching a play and seeing the plot unfold when you already know the ending will be tragic for all involved.

Berman’s next book, his book Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent, was well-received both here and in Vietnam. The book told the story of Phạm Xuân Ẩn, served as a North Vietnamese spy while he served as the only accredited Vietnamese reporter for Time Magazine in Saigon. An was also friendly with Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, who served a South Vietnam’s Military chief, Prime Minister and later its Vice President under Nguyễn Van Thieu—An trained Ky’s German Shepards.  He was brought into the Communist Party by Le Duc Tho, (who would later negotiate the Paris Peace A cords with Henry Kissinger) who sent him to California to learn about America because Hanoi was convinced that after the French left, the Americans would be next. Interestingly enough, An had the chance to leave as Saigon fell but hung around and even helped the Chief of South Vietnam’s Internal Security Forces escape communist capture.

Continue reading


The Luncheon Society/ Jill Tarter and SETI Research/SF-Fior d’Italia February 21, 2013/LA-Napa Valley Grille December 17, 2013

Jill TarterJill Tarter only needs to be right once.  In a universe where there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on our beaches, is does intelligent life exists out there?

As a longtime member of The Luncheon Society, we were pleased that she was able to join us in both San Francisco and Los Angeles for an update on SETI as well as the latest findings from the Kepler spacecraft.

As the retiring Director of SETI Research at the SETI Institute and the winner of the 2009 TED Award, Jill believes that time is on her side.  We concur.

Jill served as the model for Jodie Foster in the Robert Zemeckis movie Contact , a fictional account of what might happen should an alien message find its way to our home planet, based on a novel  written by Carol Sagan. Much is to be discovered.

It is a good bet that microbial life will be found within the moons orbiting the gaseous outer planets of Saturn and Jupiter.  As you read this, there is a hunt for microbial life or existence of past life on Mars, especially since unmistakable signs of ancient rivers and lakes have been discovered.

Kepler’s planet hunting probe studied a section of sky no larger than your extended fist and found 134 confirmed exoplanets in 76 stellar systems, with another 3,200 potential planets that are awaiting further study.  With that in mind, NASA has concluded that there might be as many as 40 million earth-sized planets, with roughly a quarter of them orbiting around star not unlike our sun.  Astronomers have identified 1,055 exoplanets, and more are on the way. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society-NY/Andrew Blum on “Tubes: A Journey to the center of the Internet.”/Blue Water Grill/2.20.13

Tubes coverThe Luncheon Society kicked off its New York gatherings with Andrew Blum, the author of “Tubes, A Journey to the center of the Internet.”

Last year, I found myself listening to a Terry Gross interview with Andrew and it was a wonderful and enlightening conversation about the mechanics of the internet, something we take for granted but cannot explain how it works.

It just is.   Watch his TED talk on the Internet to get an idea about the platform of “old fashioness” that drives our modern communications.

The title comes from a quote from former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who believed that  the internet was comprised of a whole bunch of “tubes.”  While he was ridiculed at the time, Andrew Blum essentially confirms Stevens assessment.  Beneath the internet protocols, the fiber optic relays, and whatever else is down there that nobody understands, he essentially got it right.

Here is the book jacket synopsis:  “When your Internet cable leaves your living room where does it go?

Andrew BlumAlmost everything about our day-to-day lives—and the broader scheme of human culture—can be found on the Internet. But what is it physically? And where is it really? Our mental map of the network is as blank as the map of the ocean that Columbus carried on his first voyages. The Internet, its material nuts and bolts, is an unexplored territory. Until now. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society-LA/Tere Tereba on “Mickey Cohen: The Life”/Napa Valley Grille/1.26.13


It is always great to support a member of The Luncheon Society when they have a book that comes out to well-deserved acclaim.  Such was the case of Tere Tereba, who we first met several years ago at a TLS gathering in Santa Monica at Mimi’s—a restaurant that is long-missed for its bungalow style rooms as wonderful owner—where she was the longtime companion of Jerry Leiber, of Leiber and Stoller.

Tere TerebaFor us, Mickey Cohen is still one of the great mysteries of the underworld and films of the days focused on the five families of New York and often turned a blind eye to what was going on in their own backyards—for good reason.  Unlike the fictional version portrayed by Sean Penn in Gangster Squad, the real Mickey Cohen was a far more complex figure, who operated and socialized on many levels.

Her book jacket synopsis gives you a good background of what her book is all about.

“Mickey Cohen: The Life and Times of LA’s Notorious Mobster” is a seductive, premium octane blend of true crime and Hollywood lore that spins around a wildly eccentric mob boss.  When Bugsy Segal was executed, ruthless Mickey Cohen a former pro boxer and cunning provocateur, took over the criminal activity in LA, a move sanctioned by Meyer Lansky and frank Costello.  Attaining immense power and dominance from the late 1940’s until the 1976, the semi-literate Angelino became an above –the-fold-newspaper name, accumulating 1,000 front pages in Los Angeles papers alone, and hundreds of articles in national and international periodicals. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society–SF/Richard Schickel on Steven Spielberg/1.15.13/Palio d’Asti

SpielbergFilm has long played a paramount role with The Luncheon Society.  This year, we were pleased that Richard Schickel joined The Luncheon Society for another great gathering, this time to talk about his retrospective on Steven Spielberg.

Schickel’s books remind readers of a more glamorous time in Hollywood because they are these large glossy endeavors that draw the reader into a great film story.

Schickel has a deft touch of capturing the full arc of a creative life and nobody knows the inner working of the studios (especially Warner Brothers where he created the well-received documentary “You Must Remember This.”) and I am pleased to have gotten to know him over the years.

We gave lost couSchickelnt on the number of books Richard Schickel has written over the years and we believe that the number is somewhere north of 40.  He has been equally prodigious in creating documentary films and commentary for DVD’s, a market which has sadly crashed in this Netflix era. Some of the books, like that of Bette Davis, look back at one of the giants of Hollywood, who kept acting long after she outlived most of her rivals. Others, like Schickel’s “Conversations with Scorsese,” breaks each of his films into a series on in-depth conversations between the subject and author.  It represents the sum total of an artist’s progress and each film has its own chapter. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society-SF/James Owen Weatherall/The Physics of Wall Street/1.9.13/Fior d’Italia

Weatherall bookWe are catching up on our narratives on The Luncheon Society for 2013 and we know that we are terribly behind.  We should be quickly caught up. 

James Owen WeatherallPerhaps the real Masters of the Universe are physicists after all.  Author James Owen Weatherall joined us for a conversation in San Francisco for his new book,  “The Physics of Wall Street, a Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable.”

What made gathering with James Owen Weatherall more fun is that we were joined by long-time Luncheon Society member Elwyn Berlekamp , one of the founders of The Medallion Fund as well as professor emeritus of mathematics and EECS at the University of California, Berkeley. Berlekamp is known for his work in coding theory and combinatorial game theory.

James Owen Weatherall is a physicist, philosopher, and mathematician. He holds graduate degrees from Harvard, the Stevens Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Irvine, where he is presently an assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science and a member of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences. He has written for Slate and Scientific American.

Below is the opening excerpt from James Owen Weatherall’s, “The Physics of Wall Street, a Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable.”

Introduction: Of Quants and Other Demons 

WARREN BUFFETT ISN’T the best money manager in the world. Neither is George Soros or Bill Gross. The world’s best money manager is a man you’ve probably never heard of — unless you’re a physicist, in which case you’d know his name immediately. Jim Simons is co-inventor of a brilliant piece of mathematics called the Chern-Simons 3-form, one of the most important parts of string theory. It’s abstract, even abstruse, stuff — some say too abstract and speculative — but it has turned Simons into a living legend. He’s the kind of scientist whose name is uttered in hushed tones in the physics departments of Harvard and Princeton. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Michael Dukakis/LA-Napa Valley Grille 1.5.13/SF-Palio D’Asti 2.23.13

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Editor’s note—Look for a bunch of narratives coming up quickly as we update our TLS site.  There are roughly 20 new ones on their way.

Michael DukakisFor Mike Dukakis, the 2012 election was one of the happiest in his life, and that includes a number of successful campaigns on his own behalf.  Pleased as he was, he was certain that it would be a close night. Over the years, be it in state or national races, Democrats found ways to let leads slip away in the 11th hour.  In 1968, Nixon would have lost had the race taken place 48 hours later. In 1976, Carter almost lost the race after building up a 34 point lead at convention.

The 2012 election provided a double-win with Elizabeth Warren for the Senate and Barack Obama meant a victory for grass roots politics, something that Mike Dukakis has preached since he began his entire political career as a Selectman from Brookline.

Michael Dukakis 2003Mike Dukakis joins us on several occasions each year, with an early January meeting in Los Angeles and a San Francisco gathering in late February to coincide with his granddaughter’s birthday. The three-time Massachusetts Governor and 1988 Presidential nominee notes that the Obama team learned from their mistakes and missteps in 2010 midterms and came roaring back to win.

The economy is still a long way from its full cylinder strength of the late 1990’s.  We are coming out of the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.  Worse for Obama, the collapse took place only months before he won the presidency in 2008, as opposed to Herbert Hoover, whose economic collapse took place early in his term.

Being the first African-American President at a time of economic instability, where members of the opposition did not even both to hide the polite bigotry of code words only made things worse.   In short order Obama, restructured the auto industry, engineered draw-downs in both Afghanistan and Iraq, engineered a risky take-down of Osama bin Laden, passed healthcare reform, and doubled the stock market.  Had any Republican accomplished that, they would be chiseling out his profile on the side of Mt Rushmore. Continue reading