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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: November 2, 2008 - November 8, 2008

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Voices -- Michael Crichton, 1942 - 2008

Photograph by Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

Author Michael Crichton in Santa Monica in 2002

Michael Crichton

'Rising Sun' Author Taps Darkest Fears of America's Psyche

Sunday July 5, 1992

By T. Jefferson Parker, T. Jefferson Parker's most recent novel, "Pacific Beat," was published in paperback last month by St. Martin's Press. He interviewed Michael Crichton at the author's Santa Monica office.

Michael Crichton's new novel, "Rising Sun," rose to the bestseller list and stayed there 19 weeks--buoyed largely by the controversy and heated opinions the book has aroused. Crichton's premise--that Japan's rise to economic power is a serious danger to our own economy--has left people predictably polarized.

"Rising Sun" is a cautionary tale couched as a mystery. In it, Crichton argues that the United States is a second-rate economic power and is going to have to make some profound changes if it wishes to compete with vigor in the changing world economy.

Crichton, of course, has already proved himself a master at tapping into the near-atavistic fears of American readers. In his movie, "Westworld," and novel, "Jurassic Park," technology runs amok and attacks its handlers with a serious vengeance. In "Rising Sun," the Japanese pose a similarly dramatic threat by which our darkest intimations of a collapsed U.S. economy dominated by Japanese interests are encouraged to flourish. Crichton is fluent in the language of America's popular nightmares.

Crichton himself is a well-spoken and deliberate man, apparently used to bringing all of his considerable attention to bear on whatever situation is before him. Though just 49, he has written eight novels, four works of nonfiction (ranging in subject from Jasper Johns to "electronic life") and has directed the movies "Westworld," "Coma" and "The Great Train Robbery." On top of all that, he graduated Harvard Medical School and, in 1969, was a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. For the record, Crichton stands six feet nine inches tall, and weighs a slender 235 pounds. He was not prone, in this situation at least, to jocularity. He is married, has one child and lives in Los Angeles. He sat talking amid books ranging from "Strategic Use of Scientific Evidence" to Gary Larson's "The PreHistory of the Far Side." A bevy of toy dinosaurs sat atop one end table--presumably they were his, not his child's.

Question: "Rising Sun" makes a strong argument that Japanese business is unfairly aggressive and Americans are foolish to have tolerated this unfairness for so long. Is that a decent synopsis?

Answer: Not exactly. Let me just restate it. In the immortal words of my hero, Ross Perot: "It's not a two-way street. It never has been a two-way street. It's not their fault." It's our fault.

Q: That stated, then, I'd like to talk to you about two things--Japanese-American economics and race. Let's get to the dangerous stuff first. Are you a racist?

A: No.

Q: Do you consider the Japanese racist?

A: Yes. Well, first of all, let's track. There's an extended discussion of race in the book. Different characters represent different views on perceptions of race. The central character, John Connor, who is the voice the reader is asked to believe, says, "Japan is the most racist country in the world."

Now, how people respond to this comment is, in my experience, a function of how much they know about Japan and how much experience they've had there.

Many people who have worked extensively in Japan will point to that statement and say, "That's true." When I did the Dick Cavett show--and Dick Cavett has a good knowledge of Japan--he made a joke. He said, "Yes, that's true. In fact, I invented racism. Ha, ha."

But what are we talking about here?

We're talking about a historically inward-looking nation, an island nation, largely monoracial. That's a good structure in which to have the rise of feelings of superiority about your own people as opposed to other people in the world. Of course, these broad statements can't be applied to the individual Japanese person. One of the things that Americans, as a multiracial society, feel is a tremendous sensitivity to racial comments of all kinds.

In the book, one of the things I tried to say to Americans was: Hey, while you're tiptoeing around the race issue, your competitors are a monoracial country, very much aligned, and tend to hold in common beliefs that would astound you.

Q: Have you been accused of Japan- bashing in "Rising Sun?"

A: Yeah, sure. I think that people who read the book tend to see one of two attitudes. Either they see this is a book about Japan, or a book about America. I think this is a book about America. My interest is America, and my whole focus is on how America is responding and behaving in the contemporary world. I'm not interested so much in how Japan is behaving because we have no control over that.

Unfortunately, our postwar policy has been to ask Japan to change so that our economic policies will dovetail. I think that is completely wrong. The solution is for America to change.

Anyway, you asked bashing. If Japan- bashing means an unreasoned and intemperate attack based on some irrational motive, then "Rising Sun" is not Japan- bashing.

Q: If we loosely define racism as an inherent desire in a person to promote and advance the interests of his or her race, I would contend, for the sake of discussion, that most people are racist. And that racism, as defined, can be a good and healthy thing. Would you agree?

A: No. No, I think we live in an increasingly small world, and to make divisions based on race is not to anyone's benefit.

Q: How about nationality?

A: I think nationality is inevitable and necessary. The reason is that, although we may be moving toward a world economy, many aspects of economic behavior are still determined by nationality--they just are. In other words, I can buy a car that comes from many parts of the world now. But I will drive it on an American road; if I get in an accident, I will be in the American legal system; if I get injured, I'll be in the American health- care system.

So, it's not unreasonable to imagine that, at least as we're in a transition to a world economy, it's still necessary now to pay attention to how our country is doing economically in comparison with other countries. To become poor, to move in the direction of decline, to have the good- paying jobs disappear, to abandon our manufacturing sector, to not have a national economic policy as do our competitors--these are all bad ideas.

Q: Has the continued decline in the Japanese stock market, their falling real-estate value and shrinking foreign investment caused you to rethink your views of Japanese-American business dealings?

A: No, not at all. I've not seen figures on what the growth of the Japanese GNP will be this year. You hear stories about economic distress in Japan, but you see that the growth rate is going down to 4% from 5%. If this country had a 4% growth rate, we'd all feel like we were pumped full of testosterone.

Q: How did you feel when Matsushita bought Universal Studios?

A: Fine. It didn't bother me a bit, because that sale doesn't have large economic consequences for the nation. Did it bother you?

Q: Yes. My reaction was best put by Akio Morita, whom you quoted at the end of "Rising Sun," saying, "If you don't want Japan to buy it, don't sell it." I was more aggravated by the owners of Universal than I was by Matsushita. In the book, you seem as ready to blame the U.S. for its own decline as you are to blame Japan. True?

A: I think there's no question it's an American problem.

Q: What allowed us to contribute so willingly to our own weakening? Greed? Altruism? Shortsightedness? Arrogance?

A: (following a large sigh) You have to look back at broad time periods. It's possible now to argue that Americans have had no increase in real earnings power since 1962. Some economists would dispute that, and set the date at 1973.

Either way, the country is in a steady, consistent and ongoing decline. Why? That's an extended conversation. I'll just mention three things I think are of equal importance.

First, American business emerged from the postwar period in a position of tremendous superiority. Principal competitors of pre-World War II--Germany and Japan--are devastated. So American business is pumped up from wartime production, and everyone is feeling really good. We are on top of the world. That inevitably breeds complacency, and Americans had a long period of complacency.

Secondly, in the postwar period, Americans turned away from quality as the principal goal of manufacturing and made cost the principal goal. Japanese, restructuring their companies, made exactly the opposite decision. American quality-control experts who worked in America during the Second World War, became very nearly living treasures in Japan. So Japan and Germany have had decades of structuring business in the direction of quality, whereas Americans have had decades structuring business according to . . . other principles.

Thirdly, the cost of capital. The decline of the individual investor and rise of the institutional investor as the primary player in the stock market, and the change in tax laws so there's no advantage in long-term as opposed to short-term investment, have meant that the American stock market is now entirely speculative.

No one invests in a company anymore, in the way it was done in the '50s, say, because they believe the company is good. They buy because they think the price of the stock will rise or fall. What this means is that American managers are obliged to manage in the short term. There's no incentive for an investor to hang on with a company for the long term. In Japan, savings--up to a certain point--are tax free. Why is that not also true in America? You want savings? Then don't tax it as ordinary income.

Q: OK, a shift of focus. As you probably know, your statement in "Rising Sun," that two floors of the Hitachi Chemical Research building at the University of California, Irvine, are accessible only with Japanese passports, caused quite a ripple at UCI. But the university says your statement isn't true. What do you say?

A: My understanding is there is a building on that campus, part of which is private and closed. How closed is the subject of this debate. My answer would be that the sentence I have in the book is not technically accurate. But the feeling is not wrong. Is the sentence wrong? It's not wrong enough. There's a problem of Japanese investment in American universities. We are not being careful about where the money is coming from. More than 10% of the endowed chairs at MIT are paid for by Japanese corporations. Is anybody worried about that?

Q: Your critics say that you're exploiting an irrational fear of Japan, making Japan a kind of economic great white shark. Was "Rising Sun" written with an eye for the U.S. book market, or from your heart?

A: Absolutely from my heart.

Q: Do you have Japanese friends?

A: (laughs) Yes, I still do.

Q: Without talking specifics, would you describe the advance from your Japanese publisher as large, small or in-between?

A: I would say the advance is a lot.

Q: Any tugging at your soul there?

A: For a Japanese translation? No. I think it's very important it be translated in Japan. I'm not xenophobic. I believe we should be in business with Japan. What would I do, say "no" to a translation? I wrote the book to be read.


Changeling -- Part IX


Los Angeles Times file photo

Gordon Northcott

On the eve of Gordon Northcott's sentencing, a mob goes to the jail where he is being held. One of the leaders is N.H. Winslow, the father of two of Northcott's victims, Lewis and Nelson Winslow.

            "I want the bodies of my boys. There are more than 250 men surrounding this jail. If you allow us to take Northcott from here we will create no disturbance. All we ask is that he reveal where he buried the bodies of my children."
--N.H. Winslow

 "You must allow the law to take its course."
 Youth turns deathly pale.

How to dress like a librarian for Halloween


From Librarian on the Run:

I've been getting a lot of hits recently by people searching for "how to dress like a librarian."

Will there be a lot of librarians trick-or-treating this year? My guess is that most people dressing as librarians will go for the "hot librarian" vs. "dowdy librarian" look.

It's been my experience, that real-life librarians fall somewhere in the middle of these 2 stereotypes. That is, we don't look like we'll give you a spanking you'll enjoy and we also don't look like a character from the Revenge of the Nerds movies.

Read more >>>

Box Set -- Hank Williams


Hank Williams' obituary in The Times, Jan. 2, 1953
October 28, 2008

By Robert Hilburn

More than a half century after his death, Hank Williams remains so revered as a songwriter that his gifts as a singer are often underappreciated. But one of the strengths of "The Unreleased Recordings," a remarkable new CD boxed set released today, is the way it showcases the brilliance of his vocal skills.

Besides his singing prowess, the three-disc package, which features 54 radio show performances, also underscores Williams' musical influences, including his affinity for gospel songs and his playful personality

Read more >>>


Architecture -- Craig Ellwood

Photograph courtesy of Architecture for Sale

The exterior of the Johnson/Stone residence, designed by Craig Ellwood

Currently listed: The Johnson/Stone residence, 1515 Tigertail Road, Los Angeles. $2.795 million.

More information is here >>>

Changeling -- Part VIII

Los Angeles Times file photo

Gordon Northcott: "Youth Convicted as Boy-Butcher."
Los Angeles Times file photo

"I killed Alvin Gothea on the ranch..."
Gordon Northcott is convicted and sentenced to death. There were appeals but he was hanged at San Quentin.

Several people have asked what became of Christine Collins, the mother of victim Walter Collins. The answer is vague. I'll try to tie up the loose ends as best I can in the next few days.

The Times stories are available via ProQuest. Those with a Los Angeles Public Library card may access them here. Otherwise you may get them from The Times archives.
Trial nears conclusion.
"I will reveal many things in connection with these so-called murders ... "
Los Angeles Times file photo

Court Clerk O.A. Lowentrout with a .22 rifle introduced as evidence.
"We consider it your duty to the state of California that you rid it once and for all of the malignant influence of Gordon Stewart Northcott."
Almost Unbelievable Crimes Woven Into History of State's Most Erratic Criminal
Los Angeles Times file photo

Gordon Northcott, right, questions Rex Welch, analytical expert, about bloodstains on a bucket introduced as evidence in a photograph published Jan. 28, 1929.

Vintage fashions on EBay -- Bullock's Wynshire

Here's a little black number by Rimini from the Wynshire department at Bullock's Wilshire, which was converted to a Macy's in 1995. Bidding starts at $49.

Nixon, Humphrey close in poll; Rams win over Lions, November 4, 1968


Election coverage with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in
1968, when percentages were calculated by hand.

1968_1104_sports The Rams defeated the Detroit Lions, 10-7, but few people apparently left the Coliseum happy. Mal Florence's story in The Times said the Rams were "repeatedly" booed during the fourth quarter when they stopped trying to pass. Quarterback Roman Gabriel missed his last seven pass attempts.

Quotes of the game: "That's got to be the most agonizing game I've ever seen. How long did it last? Five hours?" Coach George Allen asked.

"I have nothing to say," Gabriel told Florence in the locker room. "Let's just say it's self-imposed silence."

Headline on the game: "Rams Prevail in Stone-Age Battle." Despite all the complaints, the Rams moved to 7-1 and were tied with Baltimore for their division lead.

--Keith Thursby

Billy Wilder on 'Some Like It Hot'; Dodger stars pay a visit, November 4, 1958


Billy Wilder discusses the strengths of typecasting in "Some Like It Hot," a movie that was filmed in 1958.


Movie note: Ernest Hemingway makes a cameo appearance in "The Old Man and the Sea."

Add this story to the list of things from the 1950s you'd rarely see today.

Don Drysdale and Carl Furillo visited The Times and The Mirror to kick off the Dodgers' tour of local businesses. What a smart, easy way to meet some fans and keep the team in the newspaper during football and basketball seasons.

"We want them to meet as many fans as possible at handshaking range and we believe that the best way to do this will be to have them visit plants where our Dodger fans work," General Manager Buzzie Bavasi said.

Hard to imagine seeing Manny Ramirez at the office.

--Keith Thursby

Changeling --Part VII


Los Angeles Times file photo

From left, prosecutor Earl (sometimes spelled Earle) Redwine, Loyal Kelley, A.H. de Tremaudan (sometimes spelled Tremandon), J. McKinley Cameron, David Sokol, Gordon Northcott and Norbert Savay.
Trial planned for Riverside.
Another installment of the Gordon Northcott saga. As I noted previously, The Times published far more stories than I can possibly post here. These are selected highlights. The Times stories are available via ProQuest. Those with a Los Angeles Public Library card may access them here. Otherwise you may get them from The Times archives.

Spoiler alert: The actual Gordon Northcott story takes a surprise turn when the defendant, acting as his own attorney, questions Louisa Northcott. 
1928_1201_runoverGordon Northcott denies confession. 1929_0102_northcott
Trial begins today.
Insanity plea denied.
Louisa Northcott denies killing.
Los Angeles Times file photo

Gordon Northcott, left, and Louisa Northcott in court, Dec. 13, 1928.
Gruesome evidence.
Gordon Northcott fires lawyer.
Figures of the Old West gather for Wyatt Earp's funeral.
Skull fragment examined.
Gordon Northcott may confess.
Louisa Northcott reveals that Gordon Northcott is her daughter's child.
Christine Collins testifies.

44 shopping days until Christmas, November 3, 1958

Honestly! The Christmas ads start earlier every year. I remember when they used to wait until after Thanksgiving!

Aluminum_tree And remember, it's never too early to order your ...

ALUMINUM CHRISTMAS TREE WITH AMAZING COLOR WHEEL! At right, a triumph of the Space Age! It never drops its needles! It doesn't need to be put in water!

Go ahead and splurge. Get one with a motorized base!

You can either look for one on EBay.

Or you can buy a new one.


Officials turn away football crowds at Coliseum, November 3, 1958


Look beyond the nostalgia factor in this film produced for Studebaker dealers. Listen to the comments. The Studebaker Lark was, according to this film, intended to give consumers what they wanted: a low-priced, fuel economy car. We know today, of course, that Studebaker failed for many reasons. But these executives were positive they had read the market correctly.

"Your product philosophy is right. This is exactly what our customers want."

1958_1103_sports How huge was pro football in Los Angeles not so long ago? More than 100,000 people watched the Rams outslug the Chicago Bears, 41-35, and 10,000 more people were turned away from the Coliseum.

According to a short story in The Times, Rams management went on the radio at 12:50 p.m. to tell people not to start for the Coliseum if they didn't already have tickets. Ticket window sales were then stopped, Coliseum manager Bill Nicholas said.

Cal Whorton of The Times said the crowd of 100,470 was the second highest in NFL history at the time. More than 102,000 attended the Rams-49ers game the previous season.

As for the game, former USC star Jon Arnett simply ran past the Bears. Although Arnett didn't score a touchdown, his statistics were staggering. He gained 90 yards rushing, 71 receiving, 118 on three punt returns and 16 on kickoffs.

-- Keith Thursby


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