If you follow the national news, there's a word you hear more and more these days: Watergate.
The pundits, commentators, anchors and scholars who populate our 24/7 news cycle are drawing comparisons between what's going on in Washington today and those historic events of almost 50 years ago that led to President Nixon's resignation.
We don't know yet if those dots connect, but it makes one wonder if the current state of affairs will spur one of the results that followed Watergate: An explosion of interest in journalism.
I was just at the beginning of my media career when the Watergate story unfolded. Like every other journalist at a major newspaper, the reporting from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was mesmerizing. We huddled around the Associated Press teletype machines and watched every word in rapt fascination.
Suddenly I didn't feel like the geeky kid who worked on the school newspaper, but a First Amendment soldier in the battle to save our Republic. Working for a newspaper was cool. The movie "All the President's Men" only reinforced that. It was an amazing time and certainly a proud moment for all of us in the business.
One result saw students flooding into journalism programs at colleges across the country, aspiring to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. It was reported at the time that there were suddenly two hundred J-School graduates competing for every available job.
Of course, it's a much different media world today. Newspapers have declined to half the size they were in the Watergate era; the influence of broadcast news has waned while 24/7 cable news dominates the TV landscape. But looming large over all is the Internet, with its billions of users, where headlines move at light speed between thousands of news websites (both fake and real), blogs and social media.
You don't have to go to J-School to be in the game. All you need is an Internet connection. This is both good and bad. Good that it expands the playing field; bad that it undermines credibility and trust when anything can be passed off as fact without the checks and balances J-School taught us to apply.
One thing that isn't different: We still have the Washington Post, the New York Times and others aggressively and bravely carrying out their First Amendment duty. And thank God for that.
Whether it's movies, fashions, gadgets or books, we tune our antenna to the latest "buzz." Lately, my "buzz" sources have been lavishing praise on a book entitled "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and professor.
Originally published in 2011 in Hebrew, with an English version in 2014, it become a bestseller that has been translated into 30 languages. The hardcover edition runs 400-plus pages and is heavy, both in subject matter and actual weight (they used the good paper).
"Sapiens" traces the entire history of the human species, from its origins in Africa over two million years ago to today, with a closing look to the future. It attempts to answer the who, what, when, where and why of human actions and interactions -- how we went from the Stone Age to the Space Age, mastering fire to walking on the Moon.
Readers should fasten their seat belts; Harari takes us on an amazing journey, mixing popular culture with meticulous historical reseach, written (thank goodness) in layman's language. The story is told in three distinct phases that got us to this point: The Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Be forewarned: He pulls no punches in assessing both the achievements and the damage we have done to ourselves, other species and the Earth in our march to world domination.
Of special note is Harari's scathing indictment of the food industry's treatment of cows, chickens, cattle and pigs. It may well push you into the vegan camp.
He also expounds on the idea that much of our modern-era society, truths many hold dear, is based on collective beliefs that exist only in our imaginations, ranging from organized religions to nation states to the money that enables global commerce. If enough people were to stop believing, our society might well collapse.
Unraveling and understanding our roots is as much about biology as history, and Harari effectively weaves evolution and DNA into the discussion throughout. With cold indifference, evolution has defined what we are and created its own limits of what we can be ... until now. Harari uses the last part of his book as a cautionary tale, where technology and genetic engineering are rapidly taking Sapiens to a potential new future where we shed our human skin altogether.
"Sapiens" is not light reading, but it is fascinating, insightful and breathtaking in its scope. Take the time to look into Harari's mirror -- you'll never see yourself the same way again.
His newest book is "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow." You can also find his history course on YouTube.
May 3, 2017 marks the 35th anniversary of something I was very proud to be part of: StarText.
What's StarText? Quite simply, the newspaper on a computer.
While the Internet has made online newspapers commonplace, it was pretty rare to find one 35 years ago. In fact, StarText was among the first, and for a span of over 15 years, one of the most successful local services in the country.
In this case, local means Fort Worth-Dallas. StarText was launched by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, initially in partnership with the Tandy Corp. At that time, Tandy saw "videotext" (or "videotex," if you will) as a service that could help them sell more personal computers, which were just coming into the marketplace.
The Star-Telegram saw it as an opportunity to "test the waters" on an emerging technology without going too far out on that "cutting edge" limb. Cutting edge or bleeding edge, it was all so new we were literally making it up as we went.
I was one of three newsroom veterans who volunteered to staff this new venture, excited to boldly go where no (or few) newspapers had gone before. We worked in shifts, 6 am to midnight. Our job was update the news. Subscribers -- there weren't many at the outset -- with computers and a modem could log in and view the stories on their TV sets or monitors. What a difference from today, when just about every person on the planet has the power of a PC on a phone in their back pocket.
While primitive by today's standards (no pretty pictures -- only text), and so s-l-o-w, the idea we could provide "the news you want when you want it," was both revolutionary and magical. Despite the technical limitations, the era of "instant news" had arrived, and we were among the pioneers who would pave the way for the Internet settlers who would come later.
But at that time, the consumer Internet was a full decade away. During the years before the World Wide Web, StarText had thousands of subscribers. It added an online encyclopedia, which helped make it a mainstay in school districts across the Metroplex. It partnered with InterFirst to create one of the first home banking services in the country. Because of the success it enjoyed, industry leaders from as far away as Japan and Norway made the trip to Cowtown to learn first-hand about our "secret sauce."
The secret to our success was simple: It was people. Calling themselves "StarTexans," a core group of our subscribers became our extended family. They wrote columns, hosted get-togethers and interacted with each other and the staff before Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was born, literally. It touched people on a personal level -- so much so, almost 20 years after StarText ended, a group of dedicated subscribers still keep its spirit alive.
The founding force behind StarText was Tom Steinert-Threlkeld. A Harvard MBA, Tom was both a business reporter at the Star-Telegram and Director of New Technologies for its parent company, Capital Cities. He championed the idea of a joint venture with Tandy and was instrumental in its launch. Tragically, Tom died as a result of a bicycle accident in 2013.
For Tom and all the other pioneers at the Star-Telegram who rolled the dice on StarText, including then-Publisher Phil Meek and MIS Director Joe Donth, I salute your vision and perseverance. Besides earning a place in the online history books, StarText achieved something special. And showed a skeptical industry online really was the wave of the future.
If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the Story of StarText, a work in progress.
It's one of those headlines that grab your attention:
"Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind"
Wow ... on so many levels.
In an interview with the BBC, Hawking feared AI "would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."
We all know Hawking is a smart guy, so if he says it, maybe we should take heed.
Once the province of science fiction, AI is rapidly becoming science fact, as computing power and machine learning merge into algorithms that mimic the human brain. Robots are on the rise, pushing more and more humans to the back of the unemployment line. Scientists and philosophers are taking a deeper dive into the so-called "hard problem" -- consciousness.
Have we as a species become too smart for our own good? Maybe. But what's the point of having the most evolved brainpower in the known universe and not use it? Obviously we can't help ourselves.
It isn't enough to know we're here. Inquiring minds want to know where we came from, how we came to be and why. Maybe AI can find the answers, but I have my doubts.
Like the very logical Mr. Spock, a highly-evolved, AI-enabled entity not only wouldn't ask those questions, but also couldn't care less about finding the answers. Driven by pure logic free of emotion, it would relentlessly pursue its own idea of perfection, which might include deciding the fate of its creators. That would be us.
Hawking isn't the only smart guy sounding alarm bells about AI. It was reported Tesla's Elon Musk called the pursue of AI like "summoning the demon." Bill Gates has voiced his concern as well.
Hollywood has been warning us for years. We all remember "HAL," the computer from Stanley Kubrick's classic film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." He was pure E-V-I-L. More recently, the run-amuck androids from HBO's "Westworld" gave us fresh new nightmares.
Then there was "Fail-Safe," the chilling 1964 movie from the book by the same name, where a computer defect almost initiates World War III. As they work feverishly to understand what failed, there was this exchange:
"Even if the machine fails, the human can always correct the mistake. The machines are supervised by humans."
"I wish you were right. The fact is, the machines work so fast... they are so intricate... the mistakes they make are so subtle... that very often, a human being just can't know... whether a machine is lying or telling the truth."
Time to hide under the bed? Not yet, according to many experts, who say true AI is decades or even centuries away -- or maybe never.
Never one to trust experts, I decided to ask SIRI.
"Siri, should I be afraid of artificial intelligence?"
SIRI: "I'm not sure what to say."
Okay. I am officially worried.
Dave Barry has made me laugh -- and countless others, too -- for more years than I care to count.
My first Dave Barry encounter was at the Star-Telegram, which ran his syndicated column from the Miami Herald. At the time, I was writing my own humor column, which appeared three times weekly.
Barry became one of my idols. He wasn't just funny, he was laugh-out-loud funny. Off-the-wall, outrageous, whacky, insightful. Barry reported on life in all its absurd glory, and there was never a shortage of material.
Take, for example, Barry's latest book -- "Best. State. Ever." Subtitled, "A Florida Man Defends His Homeland." When you want to write about weird, over-the-top people and places, you'll never find more to work with than the Sunshine State.
The good news for Barry is you don't have to make this stuff up. Most of "Best. State. Ever." is harvested right from the news. Like the widely-reported case of the woman driving in the Keys and shaving her private parts at the same time. (Not only did it make this book, but was the main character in Carl Hiaasen's "Razor Girl.")
But beyond the kooky characters and how the Yankees have hijacked our roadways, Barry has penned a marvelous travel book, highlighting Florida legends (The Skunk Ape), Florida attractions (Weeki Wachee and Gatorland) and even Florida mysticism (Cassadaga). There's also a tour of Key West as only Barry can do, a stay at the Villages (where Barry attempts to answer the question, is elderly swinging really going on) and adults having fun with machine guns at Miami's Lock and Load.
The book definitively answers one question: For humor writers, Florida is, without a doubt, world champion, "Best. State. Ever."
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings
to be seriously considered as a means of communication.
The device is inherently of no value to us."
-- Western Union memo, 1876
Predictions about the future are a tricky business to be sure.
Even in this age of supercomputers and satellites, we know predicting the weather more than 48 hours in advance is something of a crapshoot.
Regardless, it is close to that time of year, when the brave or the foolhardy dare to speculate what the New Year will bring.
For me, predicting the future has always held a special fascination. Fueled by artist renderings of cities in the clouds and science fiction films like "Forbidden Planet," my imagination went into overdive thinking about what everyday life would be like in the decades ahead.
But as the decades pass, we realize those predictions of flying cars, colonies on Mars, a 150-year lifespan and robots in every home are still somewhere in the future.
Still, some of what was predicted in the 1950s hit eerily close to home. One example is from a syndicated feature called "Closer Than We Think!," by industrial designer, illustrator and futurist Arthur Radebaugh. Appearing in newspapers from 1958-1962, Radebaugh's predictions ranged from "Push Button Education" (remote learning using computers) and "Pop Out TV Programs (3-D television) to the "Electronic Home Library" (machines that record TV shows on tape) and a "One World Job Market" (using TV for global job interviews).
Radebaugh passed away in 1974, but if he were still alive, would no doubt take some pleasure in that much of what he foresaw has come to pass.
While I still find predicting what the future holds interesting, over the years I've adopted a more grounded view:
Loosely translated from the Latin, it means the future will take care of itself.
One year ago Pam and I launched this new venture. And in terms of new launches, it was somewhat, or a whole lot, unconventional.
Focus groups? No. Business plan? Not really. Marketing rollout and media buy -- are you kidding?
No -- just two career newspaper people doing what we love to do: Tell stories about the people, places and things that populate where we live.
Here more in our podcast, and thanks to everyone who helped make it possible!
How many times have you voiced this lament: "If only I had ... (fill in the blank)."
If only I had ... bought IBM when it was $10 .... grabbed a bunch of URLs before the Internet took off ...purchased that vacant lot where they built Target. You get the idea.
Here's one more: If only I had saved all those comic books I got as a kid. I could have that house by the beach.
But who knew my comic book heroes -- Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Batman and Robin, the Justice League of America -- would one day not only be worth their paper in gold, but also be the genesis for multi-billion dollar movie franchises?
Back in the day, you could buy them for 10 cents. I must have had hundreds over the years. Stashed in my closet, under the bed, in boxes. All neatly organized to make it easy for parents to toss out once you were gone.
But I can't blame them. Kids cashing in soda bottles to buy the latest comic seldom think in terms of a future investment opportunity.
Makes me want to KA-POW myself.
"How come you never report on any good news?"
That's a question newspapers get all the time, with some readers arguing bad news is apparently the only news "fit to print." People even vow to quit reading or tune out the news because "it's too depressing."
Terrorism. Zika. Layoffs. Hate crimes. There's no question lots of bad things are going on, and have been from time immemorial. Spend any time at all with the current political campaigns and it will erase any doubts you may have had.
And no question it's the "bad" that gets the lion's share of the news coverage. If for no other reason, that's what readers seem to want. Beyond the obvious "need to know," there's also a certain voyeurism at work. We humans have a innate fascination and curiosity about the mayhem and pain we inflict on each other, as well as the natural catastrophes Mother Nature deals us.
The emergence of the Internet and social media have only magnified the issue, as suddenly every person on the planet has their own personal "printing press" to spew venom and hate without any filters, checks or balances.
It's like what was a steady downpour of bad news has turned into an avalanche.
Still, through it all, there is hope. And more than that, good news.
While it may not make the headlines, trust me: There are an awful lot of good people, doing good things. Not for the publicity they may or may not get; just because it's the right thing to do.
Neighbors looking after neighbors. Volunteers giving of their time and talents. A million and one kindnesses happening right now, all over our world.
Whenever the bad news gets to be too much, take comfort in one of humanity's strongest weapons against it: The power of giving back.
The satisfaction that comes from lending a helping hand -- to a friend, a stranger, an animal, anyone or anything in need -- is unmatched.
Thankfully, it's the same Internet and social media that is helping get the word out about the good things as well as the bad.
So next time you despair about the world, try giving back. It might not change the world, but it will change yours.
I'll close with one of my favorite "feel good" videos. Let's all "Trip the Light."
The scientists of yesteryear would no doubt marvel at how some of their modern day counterparts have reached celebrity, rock star status. More or less starting with the pioneering efforts of astronomer Carl Sagan on PBS, theoretical physics has gone media mainstream, showcasing the work of Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Shows like "Through the Wormhole" with Morgan Freeman throw a bigger spotlight on ideas like the multiverse, string theory and quantum mechanic "spookiness," borrowing from Mr. Einstein.
Another name to add to that distinguished mix -- Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. Carroll's new book is "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself." A fairly ambitious undertaking, and all in less than 500 pages.
While not exactly light summer reading, Carroll tackles the topic in (mostly) plain English without skimping on the research. Divided into six parts, he draws heavily of course on physics, both classical and quantum, but is also at home in the worlds of biology, philosophy, religion and history. Building a case for theism vs. naturalism, he proceeds like a skilled lawyer, on behalf of both parties, weaving together what we know about the universe and how it functions.
Be prepared to dive into all the "hard" questions, including the arrow of time, the Big Bang, how did life begin and the biggest head-scratcher of them all, consciousness. (To quote the 1956 movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers":
"The mind is a strange and wonderful thing. I'm not sure it will ever be able to figure itself out. Everything else maybe, from the atom to the universe. Everything except itself."
Carroll's main theme is everything in our universe (which is probably just one of many) has emerged from the same basic recipe of subatomic particles and forces, including all living things. As the universe moved from order (low entropy) at the moment of the Big Bang to its current state of disorder (high entropy), we are one of the results.
Probably not really a spoiler alert, but Carroll comes down on the side of naturalism. Poetic naturalism, to be precise. And it's a hard point to argue.
Along the way, Carroll interjects examples from his life, including his relationship to his grandmother, as well as his love of strawberry syrup and rock music. It adds a human touch that's much appreciated as we gaze into the depths of the rabbit hole.
Carroll's view is that given what we know, it's highly probably this life is the only life we have, and we would be wise not to waste our allotment of 3 billion heartbeats (the human average over a lifetime). While some would find it depressing (the self-realization everything ends), I found his message oddly uplifting and comforting.
For a science book, it's amazingly readable, and relatable. Do we still have questions about what "the big picture" is all about? More than ever. But it's life's unsolved mysteries that drive us forward. No doubt Carroll's next collection of particles and forces that make up those written pages will take us farther down the road to enlightenment.
But all the science, research and learning aside, I have a hunch that Carroll would ultimately side with The Beatles: "All you need is love."
Find "The Big Picture" here on Amazon.