How and why do people take on seemingly impossible goals? From war to sports to business, New York Times bestselling author Neal Bascomb is the master of telling the stories of those who have triumphed despite all opposition. He’s spent his career studying some of history’s bravest pioneers, and he knows exactly how and why they’ve accomplished the impossible. Bascomb joins Alex Roy to discuss their favorite books, patriotism, some classic sci-fiction movies, the “A-Team,” “Red Dawn,” “Quetzalcoatl,” Bascomb’s upcoming book FASTER, the true story of a Jewish race car driver taking on Hitler’s favorite team on the eve of World World 2, and the one thing he says all fearless leaders have in common.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy:

Welcome to the NO PARKING podcast, a show that cuts through the hype around artificial intelligence, self driving cars, and how technology will actually change our lives. I’m our resident contrarian Alex Roy, with my co host, roboticist and CEO of Argo AI. Bryan Salesky. Hi Bryan.

Bryan Salesky:

How you doing Alex?

Alex Roy:

On this episode we’re going to discuss humans who choose to do the impossible, in sports, war and business, and how they use technology to do it. Joining us is Neal Bascomb. He’s one of my favorite writers, the author of 10 best sellers. The Perfect Mile, which is my favorite book. The New Cool, which I just read, is great. Higher…I haven’t read it. The Winter Fortress, which is the real life story of the A Team in World War Two, and Hunting Eichmann which if you have to ask, well, then you’ve got another problem. His new book, Faster, is a true story of a Jewish race car driver taking on the Silver Arrows Grand Prix cars on the brink of World War Two. It’s absolutely fantastic. Bascomb has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The LA Times. I love this guy. I think it’s pretty obvious.

Bryan Salesky:

Holy cow, I think you know this guy’s books better than he does.

Alex Roy:

Well, I do like to read, and I read his books. Bryan, don’t you want people to be engaged in conversation? I’m seldom that engaged because I’m all about myself.

Bryan Salesky:

You were extremely engaged to the point where Neal was like, “Yes, tell me about that book.”

Alex Roy:

Let’s just dive right in.

Alex Roy:

I’m fascinated by something you said to me when I called you to ask you to come and talk about your books. You said that all your books have the same plot. It didn’t occur to me because to me every one of your books is really fantastic. All the books that I’ve read at least. What did you say the plot was?

Neal Bascomb:

Well, not to overstate it, but I would say there’s a bit of a Red Dawn aspect of every one of my books. Ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Then, what do they do? It’s not quite Wolverines for every hero in my book versus the Russians. But it is… I’m inspired by stories about inspired people.

Alex Roy:

All right, I grew up in the 80s. So that speaks to me directly. The point of, I guess, of Red Dawn, was that a scrappy crew, committed to a cause, can accomplish anything.

Neal Bascomb:

Correct.

Alex Roy:

All right, let’s march through your books.

Neal Bascomb:

I mean, you could almost read the subtitles. I think I have an upstart band, I think I have a ragtag group. In general, the different books starting with Higher, which is about these two architects who were best friends, and then became rivals, and each elected to build the tallest building in the world in the 20s.

Alex Roy:

This was the race to build the Chrysler Building?

Neal Bascomb:

Chrysler Building, the Bank of Manhattan building, and then the late entry of the Empire State Building.

Alex Roy:

At the time, concepts… I mean, people knew how to build skyscrapers, but they were always pushing the envelope of what was safe and even feasible. I mean-

Neal Bascomb:

They were and… In the 20s, they really professionalized what it was to build a skyscraper and they went up almost like an assembly line. Story by story, versus this disarray that was happening. The Empire State Building went up a floor almost every day. You can imagine just the amount of material, the amount of men and the amount of safety issues that they had. They had to be very diligent about keeping people from dying.

Alex Roy:

It seems the biggest safety issue was the guy who would take the pictures that you find on postcards and posters in lower Manhattan now, which is the guy sitting on girders eating lunch.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, Lewis Hine.

Alex Roy:

Is that the-

Neal Bascomb:

Yes. He was the photographer.

Alex Roy:

He’s the guy.

Neal Bascomb:

He was an absolute daredevil. Actually, my grandfather was a photographer at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He did similar things on the building of the arch.

Alex Roy:

That’s one of your books I haven’t read.

Neal Bascomb:

Shame.

Alex Roy:

I’m sorry. We’re going to get to the big one, the one that really brought me into the Bascomb fan club.

Neal Bascomb:

Okay.

Alex Roy:

The thing about those skyscrapers, there had to be an enormous injury and fatality rate for those workers.

Neal Bascomb:

There were initially. I mean, if you were a steel worker, the accident and death rate was very high until really the building of the Chrysler Building. Walter Chrysler…who learned his trade, of course, on the automobile assembly line, was worried about his workers, worried about them dying, worried about these steel workers falling from 800 feet. He instituted a number of safety precautions, which really became the standard in the industry.

Neal Bascomb:

By the time the Empire State Building comes, they’re following all those rules. But prior to that, I think the death rate was supposed to be something along the lines of, per floor, you would expect at least one person to die.

Alex Roy:

Oh, great. Was there a correlation between the folks who’d come out of automotive or industry who were wanting to build these buildings up and improved safety?

Neal Bascomb:

Well, the ones actually making the enormous sums of money at this point in time were the automobile Titans like Walter Chrysler. Even the Empire State Building, John Jacob Raskob was one of the top guys at General Motors.

Alex Roy:

The end result of that is well, we know the Empire State Building won.

Neal Bascomb:

They did. Although you could argue that the Chrysler Building is probably the most beloved building in New York.

Alex Roy:

Is it?

Neal Bascomb:

Well, from my perspective.

Alex Roy:

I remember when GM had a showroom in the lobby for a long time. My dad would take me there to look at the cars, but also because no other company had such a thing. Did you ever see the movie, this is so off topic for this show, the movie Q? The 1984 horror film starring the young Michael Moriarty, who later went on to Law and Order?

Neal Bascomb:

I have not.

Alex Roy:

It was very low budget and the tagline for that movie was ‘Q, A New Name For Terror.’

Neal Bascomb:

Very catchy.

Alex Roy:

It was… The conceit was that Michael Moriarty was an NYPD detective investigating a string of disappearances from rooftops. It turned out that someone had illegally brought an egg from South America. It was an egg of the Quetzalcoatl, a dinosaur-like bird. It had nested in the top of the Chrysler Building. In what is arguably the worst special effects of all time. At the end the NYPD has to fight Quetzalcoatl on top of the Chrysler Building, which is snatching people off of rooftops. That’s very off topic for this show, let’s move on.

Neal Bascomb:

No, I love hearing about movies.

Alex Roy:

What was your next book after Higher?

Neal Bascomb:

After Higher was a book called The Perfect Mile.

Alex Roy:

The big one.

Neal Bascomb:

I think you’re a fan of it.

Alex Roy:

The biggest.

Neal Bascomb:

The biggest.

Alex Roy:

Let’s see if I describe this correctly. It’s the true story how Roger Bannister was the first man to break the four minute mile. The story I tell about it, and it’s a book that changed my life, is that it took a combination of quant science thinking and personal passion. That the pure athletes at the time in the 50s who wanted to break it…hundreds of thousands of people had wanted to break the four minute mile couldn’t because they had not applied the determination to science. That’s why Roger Bannister succeeded.

Neal Bascomb:

I mean, the Perfect Mile is really the story about three men. Roger Bannister ultimately did it first. Wes Santee, who was an American runner who was sort of all heart. He just left it all on the track after every race. Didn’t really care about the quant as you referred to it, or the science behind running. He just did it out of pure love for the sport and pure desire to win.

Then you have John Landy, who was an Australian, he was the epitome of pure will. Just grinding out the training regime as more miles but again, no science. Then you have Roger Bannister who really took the four minute mile, as you say, almost like a scientific experiment and broke down exactly what his body needed all the way to testing his oxygen levels on a treadmill, stabbing himself with needles-

Alex Roy:

That’s the story I tell.

Neal Bascomb:

That’s the story you tell.

Alex Roy:

That’s the story I tell about the book because when I was practicing to do my Cannonball Run, I would make people sit and play video games in my living room for 10, 12 hours at a time which is a treadmill of tedium. Let’s not talk about my treadmill, but go on.

Neal Bascomb:

I was fascinated, and I am and all my books is like, not only what drives people to do something, but how they achieve it. I think Roger Bannister is such a test case. I mean, just from pure will and aggression I mean, he had that. The desire to win was definitely there. The science part of it, the breaking down of the training regimes was instrumental. Then also bringing this love of what it is to run….that was Wes Santee.

I think ultimately he (Bannister) was able to do what many people thought was impossible, because he learned the lessons from not only his competitors, but embraced his passion for running again.

Alex Roy:

You met Bannister and interviewed him for the book?

Neal Bascomb:

I did and I remember sitting in a hotel, gosh, this was in the early 2000s. You sit down and generally interview, you ask the questions and your subject will answer. Well, from the get go, Roger Bannister leaned forward and started drilling me with questions like what did I know of his life, of his training regime, of the competitors to make sure that I knew when I was talking about him. He was such an aggressive intense individual. Probably one of the most I’ve ever met.

Alex Roy:

The setup for the story, I didn’t know the story before I read the book at all. I could not have cared less about running and four minute miles. I wasn’t a very athletic kid. The story… I just knew that there was a guy and it was a fast time and that was it. Because I had, at the time gotten… I guess I had a book deal to write about car racing. I went looking for books written about car racing — talk about coming full circle on this episode — that were good…that really got into the psychology people who drive fast, why they do it, and combine the passion and the physics. I couldn’t find one. Then I decided to broaden myself to sports biographies, because then there were a lot of great books. By far… When did your book come out? 05, 06?

Neal Bascomb:

In 2004.

Alex Roy:

Four. Okay. I got my book deal in 05. I asked around and everybody I asked in publishing said there’s only one book, and that was your book, The Perfect Mile. Getting into it, I was really taken aback that the bar for the perfect mile kept moving over the centuries. That at one point six minutes was considered a thing.

Neal Bascomb:

Absolutely.

Alex Roy:

How long was six minutes considered impossible?

Neal Bascomb:

Not terribly long. You get to the early 1900s and they’re beginning to chip away at it. But they ultimately got down to about four minutes and six seconds.

Alex Roy:

Wasn’t it five minutes I think for 100 years?

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, six minutes was you could imagine for a century, five minutes again, and then 4:30 and then slowly, every maybe several years, they chipped away a couple seconds at it. But they got down to about four minutes and two seconds, 4:02.6 I think, and no one could go faster than that. There were people who thought that you would literally die if you tried to run so fast that you went around the track four times in four minutes.

Alex Roy:

Everyone who goes into this, except me, knew that Bannister did it. Yet, the story is gripping because most people don’t realize the amount of preparation that goes into… That went into what he did, because he was a student. He would run, if I recall, run from his dorm to his lab, to classes.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, he was studying medicine to be a doctor.

Alex Roy:

Then he built this treadmill to test oxygen depletion, over a four minute exertion.

Neal Bascomb:

Lactic acid.

Alex Roy:

Then he broke the record. Since then, hundreds of people, thousands have done it. Is that right?

Neal Bascomb:

Yes. They’re high school kids who do it on a regular basis. Not on a regular basis but-

Alex Roy:

So really it was a psychological barrier…plus some knowledge about training.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, I think a combination of those two.

Alex Roy:

That’s a very A-Team story.

Neal Bascomb:

It’s a very A-Team story. I think it’s interesting that you connect auto racing to running because in The Perfect Mile, and the way these runners describe what it was to be running at that pace and that level, the zone that they found themselves in, and everything else in the world disappears. which I discuss in my new book Faster…about auto racing in the 1930s. You see the same descriptions from Rene Dreyfus. That was the one place in the world they wanted to be where nothing else was intruding. It was just them and the wheel and the road ahead.

Alex Roy:

Have you read this book The Racing Driver? I think the author is…Jenkinson?

Neal Bascomb:

I have.

Alex Roy:

Didn’t he drive with Fangio?

Neal Bascomb:

He did.

Alex Roy:

For those who don’t know, Fangio is considered the greatest race car driver of all time. Or he was.

Neal Bascomb:

He was.

Alex Roy:

Okay.

Neal Bascomb:

In my opinion it’s Tazo Nuvolari, but we could argue.

Alex Roy:

Well, seems like someone would have to write a book about vintage car racing to know.

Neal Bascomb:

I know, you would have to find out.

Alex Roy:

We’re going to get to your new book before this is over. Fangio is considered one of the best. Nuvolari clearly-

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, I think we’re on the same page.

Alex Roy:

Norman Jenkinson, I think, was his navigator.

Neal Bascomb:

Dennis?

Alex Roy:

Dennis Jenkinson. That’s right. Norman Jewison is the director of the 70’s dystopian political thrillers.

Neal Bascomb:

I can see how you get those mixed up.

Alex Roy:

You ever see any of the-

Neal Bascomb:

I have.

Alex Roy:

The Parallax View…but that’s another show.

Neal Bascomb:

Uhhhhhh……?

Alex Roy:

That’s not… We won’t go there.

Alex Roy:

Right. Jenkinson, he wrote this book and in the book he talks about the zone he described… For athletes of any real caliber. He describes it as tigering. I remember he notes that he became like a tiger. He was completely… Nothing would stop him. It was death or victory, that was it. But at the highest levels of the art, it can be something else. One might not win, but has one has put everything into it. That was the book I read right before I read the Perfect Mile. Even today, it’s been almost 14 years. Every presentation I give about the cannonball records cross country, I pull up a picture of Bannister and I cite your book. Do your book sales spike every six to eight weeks?

Neal Bascomb:

It’s strange, I have noticed that but I didn’t correlate that to you but thank you.

Alex Roy:

That book, I guess, was the one that pushed you into legendary territory?

Neal Bascomb:

Maybe.

Alex Roy:

The notion that your books would be about people or teams that accomplished difficult or impossible things. Was that always the plan or did that solidify after the Perfect Mile came out?

Neal Bascomb:

No, it was never the plan. I don’t think I quite came to that connection until… Maybe I’m not terribly bright, but the seventh or eighth book, when I finally was writing about these Norwegians sabotaging the German atomic bomb program.

Alex Roy:

The Winter Fortress.

Neal Bascomb:

The Winter Fortress, where I was like, huh, everyone says I… Well, my wife says that I choose my books based on where I want to travel next. But I think a definite theme began to appear to me finally at last with Winter Fortress that a lot of these stories as you noted, are Red Dawn.

Alex Roy:

Well, that is the most Red Dawn story of all of them.

Neal Bascomb:

That is essentially the true story of Red Dawn.

Alex Roy:

How come there hasn’t been a movie about the event depicted in the Winter Fortress?

Neal Bascomb:

I hope there will be. Michael Bay and folks have the rights and there’s some very good scripts. Someone just sent me a Twitter message yesterday saying it should make a Chernobyl like miniseries. I can always keep my fingers crossed.

Alex Roy:

All right, the Winter Fortress is interesting. They’re all interesting, they’re all great because I remember as a kid, my dad fought in World War Two. He considered himself a pretty liberal person. He was an immigrant, joined the army, went back to Europe to fight. But he had a… What’s the word. He had absolutely no regrets about dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.

Because he was going to be… He was slated to be in the forces that were going to move to the Pacific for operation Olympic…which was the invasion of Japan. The casualties were supposed to be horrific for that. In his mind, the sum total number of people that would have been killed had Olympic proceeded…and THEN an atomic bomb being ready,,,was vastly greater than actually were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a terrible thing to say. It’s the devil’s calculus.

Neal Bascomb:

It is.

Alex Roy:

But I remember him saying to me in an offhand remark, he’s like, “Well, it’s a good thing the Nazis didn’t get the bomb.” I must have been in high school. Over the years, whenever I heard stories of Heisenberg or Niels Bohr, I’m like, well where’s that movie? Then The Winter Fortress book finally came out, which is… It’s one of those crazy World War two stories that combines science fiction and the dangers of the Nazis getting the atomic bomb, with real special operations missions. Can you tell us a little bit about that story, how you came across it and research you did?

Neal Bascomb:

Sure. I mean, one of the my favorite books is Richard Rhodes, The Making Of The Atomic Bomb. I’ve read it. It’s a massive door stopper and I’ve embarrassingly read it three times. I just loved and was fascinated by the history of the atomic bomb. I always wanted to find a way as a writer into that story to tell part of that story. Just one day I was, paging through that book again, and I came across this story about these band of Norwegians who after the British failed to stop the Germans from attaining heavy water, which was instrumental in their atomic bomb plants. That a group of Norwegian, basically locals, come together, are trained by the British Special Forces, and then sent back into their country to destroy the German development of heavy water.

It’s a story about living deep into the winter tundra for months at a time, and then planning this operation and then executing one of sabotage, which you could argue in one way or the other helped save us from the Germans.

Alex Roy:

Well, we could definitely argue for it because as we know, they did not get the bomb and yet the story is riveting. I always… I wondered what… People don’t really understand how remote the Norsk hydro electric plant is in Norway. It seems close on a map, but it’s out there. In the book, it talks… There’s a point where the… I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a great book worth reading.

But of course, all attention and excitement is in how close things come to going around and then do. There’s a point in the book where the team, the British paratroopers, they’re setting up a glider mission, to throw away a line in the book, they didn’t actually know exactly what it was they were trying to stop. Right?

Neal Bascomb:

Correct. Yes. The actual sappers. The British soldiers.

Alex Roy:

The officers, the planners didn’t tell these guys what was at stake.

Neal Bascomb:

Correct.

Alex Roy:

They went anyway.

Neal Bascomb:

Two men.

Alex Roy:

Things go really badly. Then they go again.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes.

Alex Roy:

That commitment to a cause where you don’t really know why but you go anyway. In World War One, everybody had to know, at one point they were literally cannon fodder. Here you’ve got very highly trained people who spent their entire lives developing skills, but they still go. They just go.

Neal Bascomb:

The story is in some ways… One of the themes is…what is patriotism? Is patriotism supporting your government, supporting freedom? But when you really got down to what motivated these Norwegians to stop the Germans, it really had, in some ways, nothing to do with heavy water. Had nothing to do with atomic bombs. It had to do with their individual villages, their individual towns, families, the life that they had and wanting to protect that. Protect it not only for themselves, but protecting it for their children and their children’s children. That to them is.. In many ways patriotism is local when you get down to things. I was fascinated by that. You see it in the heroes of this story.

Alex Roy:

Isn’t it evaporating today? People losing losing faith in causes and leaders?

Neal Bascomb:

I mean, it’s a very… Wow, it’s a hard question to answer, but I think…

Alex Roy:

It’s not evaporating in some parts of the world.

Neal Bascomb:

I think, if push came to shove, when put in this extraordinary circumstance, I think you would find the people and their patriotism and their level of willingness to give their lives for what they believe would be just as present today as it was 50 years ago. I believe that hopefully.

Alex Roy:

I believe… I think there was probably a time where maybe in the absence of mass communication, the cause was all there was because there was no mass communication platform to let you debate it.

Neal Bascomb:

Right.

Alex Roy:

But with democratization, total commoditization of communication, people can have these debates. Probably a good thing assuming, there’s transparency and honesty.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes. Assuming you don’t get shut down for what you believe.

Alex Roy:

In between, Winter Fortress and the other book… You also wrote this book about the Battleship Potemkin.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes. Probably one of my favorite books to write…and probably the one that sold the least?

Alex Roy:

Why?

Neal Bascomb:

Why did it sell the least?

Alex Roy:

Tell us what… Share the story for those who don’t know the story of the Potemkin.

Neal Bascomb:

Sure, the story in it is about a 1905 Rebellion on the Black Sea by these sailors on the Battleship Potemkin. They basically are revolting against Tsar Nicholas. They take over this ship and over the course of a couple of weeks, they resist the whole Russian Empire. It’s a story about these sailors and what they were fighting for.

Alex Roy:

Why didn’t this resonate? What year did this book come out?

Neal Bascomb:

That book came out I think in 2006, 2007. It was reviewed wonderfully. I think of all my books is probably reviewed the best.

Alex Roy:

Better than the Perfect Mile?

Neal Bascomb:

Better than Perfect Mile. The reviews were gushing. I’m not sure the American audience contrary to what I thought much cares about 1905 Russia. I could be wrong.

Alex Roy:

Was this before after the Battle of Tsushima Strait?

Neal Bascomb:

Battle of Tsushima Strait was in 1904 during the Russia-Japanese war. This was one of the precipitating factors of the Potemkin mutiny, was all the Russian sailors who died.

Alex Roy:

Maybe you should… For those who don’t know the story, the Japanese, the Russians fought a battle. The Russians fleet sail around the world to get to the sea of Japan and the Japanese just annihilated them.

Neal Bascomb:

Just absolute decimation.

Alex Roy:

Which was a big shock for those who know Japanese history. They just emerged from centuries of isolation and defeated a serious global power. That precipitated the lack of… The depression and unhappiness of Potemkin sailors. Maybe your book was 20 years late. Because if that book had come out in the 80s, before the fall of the wall, people had said ‘oh, Russians are humans too.’ They’re motivated. They’re people just like us who are motivated by the same passions and resentments and faith in themselves, like you said…local. They’re loyal to their sailors. Sailors loyal to the people on the ship.

Neal Bascomb:

Exactly.

Alex Roy:

Offer more than the course. Interesting.

Neal Bascomb:

Maybe it was… The heroes of red mutiny are communists. They weren’t fighting for Marx or Lenin. They were, as I talked about the Norwegians, and you just said, they were fighting for each other.

Alex Roy:

Each other.

Neal Bascomb:

Exactly.

Alex Roy:

The sequence of books, with Hire, Perfect Mile and then you wrote a book called… About STEM research.

Neal Bascomb:

I did. I was fascinated by… That book was called the New Cool. Dean Kamen started his first Foundation, which tried to get kids inspired to pursue STEM studies and to teach them about science and engineering. He created what is now an international robotics competition that these high school students over the course of a number of weeks, build from scratch a robot. Then they compete against each other throughout high schools, not only United States, but across the world. It’s a geek oriented sports story.

Alex Roy:

I’m sorry that Bryan’s not here for this.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes. Where is Bryan?

Alex Roy:

He couldn’t make it for this re-recording of this episode, because the file was corrupted. Dog ate my homework. There was a problem with the last recording. I’m sorry he’s not here because he is a huge backer of STEM programs and he’s a backer of FIRST Robotics.

Neal Bascomb:

Well that’s awesome that he does that.

Alex Roy:

We’ve had a number of events at the office where kids came and showed off their robots. I I think that was probably Bryan’s happiest days.

Neal Bascomb:

I mean the the level of enthusiasm that those kids bring to that sport in that event is incredible.

Alex Roy:

Again, a Red Dawn moment. To see kids of all backgrounds leveled out by whatever ingenuity they bring to putting together hardware and software to make a robot do anything…gives me faith in the future.

Neal Bascomb:

I think it’s… Of any of my books. It’s this story of these kids from every background, every race, every part of the country, all come together for this really just tremendous competition.

Alex Roy:

Did you meet Dean Kamen?

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, I spend a good amount of time with Dean Kamen in his glorious house.

Alex Roy:

What year did you meet Dean? Dean’s one of our great inventors.

Neal Bascomb:

Dean is just an absolute treasure. Such an interesting guy. I met him in 2000… I think 2007, 2008.

Alex Roy:

Do you remember in 19-

Neal Bascomb:

Sometime seems to be evaporating so I could add my years if I wanted to.

Alex Roy:

In 1999, do you remember when Dean Kamen announced that he was going to show a product? He said it was going to change the world. This is years before Silicon Valley companies began saying that every day. He said he’s going to change the world.

Neal Bascomb:

He did. I was actually working in book publishing at the time. There was something that it was called. A book proposal was being bid on by publishers across New York. They didn’t know what the product was. They just were told that it’s going to change the world. I think the bidding prices were through the roof just for the book about this unknown product.

Alex Roy:

Did that book come out?

Neal Bascomb:

I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Alex Roy:

Because if the book had been about what I thought his invention was going to be in 2000, it would have been the biggest book of all time. Instead, he showed us the Segway.

Neal Bascomb:

The Segway.

Alex Roy:

In a wild bit of irony, today, companies that offer shared scooters like Segways are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But that’s many years after he sold the Segway company to Ninebot, the Chinese company.

Neal Bascomb:

Something like that.

Alex Roy:

Because I thought and I had money on the table with my partners and my tech startup in 99, 2000. I was quite sure Dean was going to announce he’d built a teleportation device.

Neal Bascomb:

That was definitely on the table of of what people thought that it was going to be.

Alex Roy:

Did you read the story? I always assume that real writers have read everything and far more than me.

Neal Bascomb:

Right.

Alex Roy:

Please impress me, Bascomb, because I’m a huge fan. It was a Stephen King story called The Jaunt.

Neal Bascomb:

The Jaunt.

Alex Roy:

Short story. It was in the future, teleportation is possible and replaces planes and boats whatever. The conceit is that if a human goes through, they have to be anesthetized. They can’t be awake. If they are, they go crazy because the jaunt itself if you’re awake takes a million years. But if you’re asleep, it’s one second.

Neal Bascomb:

Which is nicer.

Alex Roy:

Yes, much nicer. I was both hopeful that he built that thing, but also that I wouldn’t wake up going through it. Then all I got was a scooter.

Neal Bascomb:

Have you watched Altered Carbon?

Alex Roy:

I’ve watched a few episodes.

Neal Bascomb:

That’s a fascinating show.

Alex Roy:

The sleeves.

Neal Bascomb:

The sleeves.

Alex Roy:

The sleeves.

Neal Bascomb:

You teleport basically through the memory chip in your spine.

Alex Roy:

Are you familiar with the concept of continuity of consciousness?

Neal Bascomb:

I am.

Alex Roy:

I feel once I’m aware of that notion, I can’t take any narratives around it seriously. No. A lot of science fiction like neural lace technology, Elon Musk, if you know anything about continuity of consciousness, you can’t… It’s why Star Trek makes no sense. Because the transporter literally deconstructs you into a mathematical… Into ones and zeros and sends you through a reconstruction on their side. You’ve just died.

Neal Bascomb:

You have.

Alex Roy:

To everyone else you might still be alive but you, gone.

Neal Bascomb:

But you resurrect.

Alex Roy:

No you don’t. This is not a religious position. It’s just science. We have Winter Fortress and… Does that bring us to your new book or what was in between?

Neal Bascomb:

I did a book called The Escape Artists, which was a book about these pilots in World War One, World Flying Corps pilots. It’s probably the most dangerous job. I mean, I think the lifespan of a Royal Flying core pilot was something like 10 minutes in the air over the front, something like that.

Alex Roy:

Is that true? 10 minutes on mission one?

Neal Bascomb:

On mission one, there just were… The planes were basically wood cloth and wire. You were not allowed to have a parachute because your commanding officer thought that that would make you less aggressive against the enemy.

Alex Roy:

I think that has some merit.

Neal Bascomb:

That probably has some merit. Most of these pilots were either shot down and killed or shot down or mechanical failure or captured by the Germans. They were absolute rascals. They were generally Oxbridge, Oxford, Cambridge educated, wealthy upper class, individuals who were flying, who were the first fighter pilots. Put those people into prison. They really will do just about anything to get out. It’s a story about how they get out of essentially the Alcatraz in Germany.

Alex Roy:

That’s… I can’t believe I haven’t read that book.

Neal Bascomb:

Escape Artists.

Alex Roy:

I’ll definitely check that out. Again, another super A-Team.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes. You’re really cutting to the chase. Alex. I appreciate that.

Alex Roy:

I didn’t know, but it was really exciting. If Bryan were here, this is around the time when he’d say, let’s talk about self driving cars.

Neal Bascomb:

Let’s do it.

Alex Roy:

We do need to talk about that. Which is going to bring us to your new book, Faster. The way this episode came to be, I said, “Let’s talk to Neal Bascomb.” I had read a book called Autonomy by Larry Burns, who was present as witness and as somewhat of a participant in the early DARPA challenges, which was when the Defense Research Agency had these races across the desert in 05, 06.

His book had a similar arc. We have all these characters. Guy named Red Whitaker who has been on our show from Carnegie Mellon. Assembles a team of scrappy, brilliant young engineers 15 years ago to build these robots across the desert. At the time, they didn’t know that these robots they were building might eventually develop into autonomous vehicles that might improve life. It was just a race across the desert.

That race is still… It’s still going on. Because those characters are now titans of the sector. Bryan, if he were here, he’d hate that I’m saying this, is one of those characters. I said to Bryan, this Bascomb guy has lessons to teach us about what compels people to pick difficult goals. How they inspire teams to follow them. What are the common things you’ve seen across the leaders who make decisions to do this. Going all the way back to Higher?

Neal Bascomb:

Right. I think it’s a very interesting question, because I find that most of these leaders are not necessarily the most charismatic individuals. Being someone that everyone is just bowled away by personally, it doesn’t really happen. It’s more their intensity of purpose, I would say. Just as I was describing Roger Bannister, just the level of aggressiveness, the level of ‘I’ll do anything to make this happen. I’m committed. Everyone around me knows that I’m committed.’

That in itself is inspiring to a group of people. I mean, knowing that someone will go through any wall to achieve the mission is everything. You see it with Walter Chrysler Building the tallest building. You see it with Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile. You see it with Joachim Rosenberg who led the Winter Fortress, the mission to sabotage the atomic bomb, and you see it with Lucy Schell in Faster.

Alex Roy:

We were about to get to that.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes sorry. You see it time and time again. This… It’s a mix of passion and intensity. The other thing I would say would be the clarity of purpose. Not just the ‘we want to do this, but this is exactly what we’re going to do.’ People know that from the very beginning.

Alex Roy:

One of the debates I often have people about the merits of autonomous vehicles, is that there are people out there who are trying to sell them on the notion that they’re green. That moves some people but not a lot. Or that they are more efficient in terms of traffic.

Neal Bascomb:

I have, it appeals but it’s not going to get you up in the morning.

Alex Roy:

Then there are people who try to sell them on the notion of safety. Which it speaks to anyone who’s ever lost someone in a crash but doesn’t speak to anyone else because everyone thinks they’re invincible. Somewhere in this mix of motivations, a lot of people invest a lot of time and money in building them.

It seems to be this great division between the leaders in any sector, certainly in autonomous vehicles, who are known to believe what they’re saying. I believe Bryan is one of those people, or I wouldn’t be supporting him. Then, there are the more cynical leaders…and yet people… My theory is that people don’t trust machines, unless they trust the people behind them. Anyway, it’s… This is why I’m hoping, just pray that Bryan completes his project.

Because as I get older, I feel… I know that I’m not as safe as I used to be. When people ask me if I’m ever going to go back and Cannonball again or race a car, my answer is always No. Because I just turned 48 and I can tell that I’m not at the height of my powers like I was at one time. I mean…Bannister, did he ever run that fast again?

Neal Bascomb:

No, he slowed down precipitously.

Alex Roy:

How old was Rene Dreyfus when…

Neal Bascomb:

He was in his mid 30s when he was killing it.

Alex Roy:

Is that the right age for… Is that when people do their best work. I means if it’s a physical?

Neal Bascomb:

In driving, but at least in the vintage race driving, I felt experience mattered more than youth. You have Nuvolari. You have Rudy Kegel who were… They were very good drivers in their 20s. But when they were in their 30s they were winning just as much or more.

Alex Roy:

Is that because the cars at the time… We’re talking about the 30s now. The driver skills were greater than the performance envelope of the car? Because today it’s definitely not true.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, I think your ability as a driver mattered more than it does today, I would say in a rather blanket statement.

Alex Roy:

I’m not sure I agree with that, but yes, I think if your skill exceeds the envelope of the car-

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, you said it better than I did.

Alex Roy:

… then your age is less relevant.

Neal Bascomb:

Correct.

Alex Roy:

Because today, it seems like 14 year olds… The car greatly exceeds anyone. Even a 14 year olds is maybe at their peak, 12 year old maybe?

Neal Bascomb:

Right.

Alex Roy:

Their skills have to match… Have to be at their peak because they’re just going to die.

Neal Bascomb:

Your knowledge of the courses, your knowledge of how far and fast you can push a car.

Alex Roy:

You ability to afford to get into a race car in 1935.

Neal Bascomb:

The ability to get into a race car. What’s interesting about that period of time is that the cars went from going 100 miles an hour, up to 200 to 250 miles an hour in this very quick leap in a period of 10 years and so the safety level just did not match that. They were still not wearing seat belts. There was no crash frame, there was no… By no means were they wearing crash helmets.

Alex Roy:

All right, despite my effort to bring us to autonomous vehicles, we’re jumping right into your new book.

Neal Bascomb:

No, I’m happy to keep talking about autonomous vehicles.

Alex Roy:

I’m saying that just to amuse Bryan because he’s not here, because I know he’d say, “Can we talk about autonomous vehicles?” Let’s jump straight into Faster. Your new book about Rene Dreyfus and this very iconic battle between the Jewish race car driver and the Silver Arrows team fielded during the peak of pre war Nazi influence. 1938.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, they started… The Third Reich began starting support vehicles in late 33. The new Formula in 1934 all the way to the start of the war.

Alex Roy:

Give us some more background here. Convince everyone that they should read this book, because it is a great book.

Neal Bascomb:

Sure. I can. Well, we can start with what Hitler decides to do. It’s his big speeches as the new Fuhrer of Germany. He goes to the Berlin Motor Show and says, we are going to dominate motor sport. Not only are we going to sell the most cars, but we’re going to be the greatest team in the Grand Prix. Not only is that going to be a propaganda win, but it’ll help sell cars, and it’ll help raise the glory of the Nazis.

Neal Bascomb:

For a long time, they achieve that. Some people began to get fed up with the fact that the German Silver Arrows, Mercedes, and auto union and their drivers are just sweeping the field race after race after race. In 1935-36, Lucy Scell who was probably the top American Monte Carlo rally driver, one of the early speed queens. Very rich, very motivated, anti German, decides that since the French aren’t doing anything, since the British aren’t doing anything, Americans, no one’s competing at a level against these individuals that she’s going to start her own Grand Prix race team.

She’s going to fund a car from scratch. She chooses this largely defunct French automaker Delahaye. Then Rene Dreyfus, this very good Grand Prix driver who had largely been banned from the best teams, and collectively in this again, ragtag, upstart group of people, how do we take on the German Silver Arrows? The story revolves around that narrative of this team taking on the Silver Arrows, but also paints the whole picture of 1930s vintage racing and what that world was like.

It was very glamorous, it started on a very individual… The drivers winning and became nationalistic. Germans versus the French versus the Italians. Who’s going to be the best.

Alex Roy:

I’m glad you wrote this book now because the story is just obscure enough. Most people going in won’t know what happens.

Neal Bascomb:

They won’t probably.

Alex Roy:

This is one of those things I’m not going to give away. The book is totally awesome and worth reading.

Neal Bascomb:

Thank you.

Alex Roy:

Back then, when drivers were being killed frequently enough, through the 50s, through very spectacular crashes. Car racing really, honestly hit its peak, but it was something people were willing to go to despite the risks to the drivers and themselves. Today, it’s relatively anodyne. Recently, there have been a few events that show autonomous race cars going around a track.

Neal Bascomb:

Wow.

Alex Roy:

Now I can absolutely buy the notion that an autonomous vehicle that is safer than a human and more affordable than me owning a car, and hopefully is more efficient is a valuable application of the technology. Do you think anybody wants to see an autonomous race car compete against another autonomous race car? Because every story you’ve told-

Neal Bascomb:

That answer, no. The only parallel I can even possibly connect it with is the First Robotics competition where these robots are competing against each other, but they’re driven.

Alex Roy:

The STEM stuff.

Neal Bascomb:

But they’re driven by kids and you can see the kids behind the glass steering them. They do have autonomous capabilities, but they’re mostly machine control.

Alex Roy:

All right, would you write a book about two teams of kids building an autonomous race car and the teachers inspiring them? Because that seems like that would be a great story?

Neal Bascomb:

That would be a great story. But the cars, the story about the car themselves, racing around and companies who built them probably not as interesting. But if it was, again, this sort of ragtag group, then we can do it.

Alex Roy:

The book that I’d want to write and I’m not going to… I can’t write it, would be the wars behind the scenes of the companies trying to build autonomous vehicle tech. The irony to me is that all of them, that the goals are noble and obvious. Safety, efficiency, affordability, but to develop one, safely and deploy one that is safe, these terms are fungible.

Neal Bascomb:

Right.

Alex Roy:

Requires a level of discipline that not all players are willing to live up to. That’s the book that I want to read and I’m hoping if you don’t write it, somewhere like you does. Because the race to build tech is a human race like any other tech.

Neal Bascomb:

No, absolutely. If you look at any of my books or any great stories, whether you’re talking about autonomous vehicles, or you’re talking about a B17 bomber. The B17 bomber, the autonomous vehicle is really just a “vehicle” for the people behind the effort to build the best one or build the safest one. What’s their motivations? What’s their clarity of purpose? Who’s leading the effort? How are they overcoming the challenges?

That’s what people care about in terms of stories. You could argue that the ability to develop and tell a very good story, as motivation as inspiration is a very important driving force behind any effort.

Alex Roy:

Do you believe in this notion of the Ghost In The Machine. Machines are infused with the values of the Creator?

Neal Bascomb:

I do so. Absolutely. Tracy Kidder’s book is-

Alex Roy:

I don’t know that book.

Neal Bascomb:

The Soul Of The New Machine? Not the Soul, is that what it’s called? Tracy Kidder wrote a great book about computer programming a couple decades ago. It’s a story about computer programming, but it’s really the story about the engineers and the computer scientists behind it.

Alex Roy:

I mean technology is…

Neal Bascomb:

The Soul Of A New Machine. That’s what it’s called.

Alex Roy:

I thought it was pretty well read but as proven by the work of a real writer, there’s always something to learn.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, I mean, have you read SoulCraft For Shop Class, Shop Class as SoulCraft?

Alex Roy:

I bought it.

Neal Bascomb:

Didn’t read it?

Alex Roy:

Did not read it.

Neal Bascomb:

That’s also about tangible practical things but what’s the moral and purpose behind it?

Alex Roy:

Have you been to the Strand bookstore in New York City?

Neal Bascomb:

Yes.

Alex Roy:

Many years ago I was set up with someone who worked there who gave me a special tour. I was so… I felt like I really was now a real New Yorker. Until she said to me that you could buy books by the foot and that that was a very big business for them.

Neal Bascomb:

Yes, it’s debilitating to see your own books at the Strand. That’s inevitable.

Alex Roy:

The most debilitating thing was someone sending me an Instagram image of my own book, my autobiography on the New York city street corner near a trash can surrounded by other books that had been left behind by a homeless person who had sold a number of books but mine remained unsold and abandoned it on a towel.

Neal Bascomb:

What’s worse is I can beat that. Is a signed copy of your book to a friend that you find doesn’t get read.

Alex Roy:

Oh, I’ve gotten that. I buy back copies of my own books that are out of print, and it’s hardcover edition. I buy them back on Amazon and eBay.

Neal Bascomb:

But if this is the worst thing that happened to me, I think I’m doing okay.

Alex Roy:

What would it take to convince you to trust an autonomous vehicle, or put your kids in one?

Neal Bascomb:

Probably, just like a drug trial where there’s multiple layers of proof of efficacy. The data behind it and seeing that it actually worked. I get in an airplane all the time.

Alex Roy:

Have you seen the data?

Neal Bascomb:

I’ve not seen the data. I’ve seen the data just in respect of the broad strokes which is it’s very likely they’ll be much safer than your average driver.

Alex Roy:

Where are you going on your book tour and where can we learn more about Faster?

Neal Bascomb:

You can learn more about faster at my website, NealBascomb.com. N-E-A-L B-A-S-C-O-M-B. Find Faster at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookstore.

Alex Roy:

Where do you make the most money?

Neal Bascomb:

I make the most money at your local independent bookstore I would say. I think that’s the right answer. More important than that, support your local independent bookstore. I’ll be touring Seattle, Portland, LA, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, DC, New York and my hometown Philly.

Alex Roy:

Well, it’s a great book. Recommend everybody go out and read it.

Neal Bascomb:

Thank you.

Alex Roy:

Thanks for coming, Neal. Really appreciate it.

Neal Bascomb:

Awesome.

Bryan Salesky:

So Alex, you were way into that. Oh my goodness. You knew more about Neal’s books than Neal did.

Alex Roy:

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious what a huge fan I am. He and I are the same age, we watch all the same shows. If I was a full time writer, I would love to have written the books he wrote.

Bryan Salesky:

Poor Neal he endured an absolute grilling, he found out things about his writings that he didn’t know about. I mean, what draws you so much to these books?

Alex Roy:

Well-

Bryan Salesky:

By the way, he’s a great writer.

Alex Roy:

He’s a great writer.

Bryan Salesky:

He’s invented amazing stories, but I’ve never seen you this fired up.

Alex Roy:

I was fired up for something that he said to me. All his books were basically the same plot. All his books were basically the A-Team or Red Dawn. It’s a scrappy crew, got to do something crazy-

Bryan Salesky:

A-Team was one of my favorite shows in the 80s. Loved it. I loved that show.

Alex Roy:

Me too.

Alex Roy:

Thanks so much for coming and joining us on No Parking this week with our guest, Neal Bascomb. If you’d like to be a guest on No Parking or recommend a guest, please email us at guests@noparkingpodcast.com. If you want to complain or ask a question or insult me or… Really hit us up on Twitter at No Parking Pod and please follow us on twitter obviously because we post all the best quotes from our transcripts there twice a day.

Alex Roy:

You can also subscribe to our mailing list and you absolutely should at www.noparkingpodcast.com where you can see full transcripts of every episode. This episode, like all of them, was produced and edited by Dave Chekan. I’m Alex Roy here with my co host, Bryan Salesky. We shall return next week to cut through the hype around AI, self driving cars and how technology will actually change our daily lives.