Oliver Sacks on Mortality

In a heartbreaking and beautiful essay for the New York Times, Oliver Sacks writes about learning that he has terminal cancer:

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Podcast Episode 9: I Was Deprived

Every parent I know struggles with their children, at least a little bit, over access to technology. On the one hand, we don't want our kids' brains to rot. On the other hand, they need some technological freedom, if only to learn how to use these devices. So where do you draw the line?

On the latest episode of my podcast, I have two stories, from two extremes, about that struggle. One is the story of a woman who grew up with almost no technological freedom. The other is the story of a single mother who worries she's giving her kids too much technological freedom.

I'm trying something new with this episode, editing together two separate interviews so that the two stories weave in and out of each other. Both stories are interesting on their own, but there's something especially fascinating about hearing, for example, one woman talk about unwrapping the first cellphone she ever bought as an 18-year-old (against her mother's wishes) while the other woman talks about giving a cellphone to her five year old.

I'm really proud of how it turned out. So if you're reading this and you haven't checked out the podcast yet, or if you haven't listened in a while, I highly recommend trying this episode.

Technological Vulnerability

Colin Dickey writing for Aeon on why it's dangerous for modern civilization to be so dependent on technology:

On 1 September 1859, the British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a burst of solar winds and magnetic energy that had escaped the corona of the Sun. The Carrington Event, as it came to be known, was not only the first recorded CME, it was also one of the largest ever on record, and it unleashed a foreboding and wondrous display of light and magnetic effects. Auroras were seen as far south in the northern hemisphere as San Salvador and Honolulu. As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: ‘From twilight until 10 o’clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before.’

At the time, the event caused some minor magnetic disruption to telegraph wires, but for the most part there was little damage caused by such a spectacular event, its main legacy being the fantastic displays of light across the sky in early September. But should a solar flare happen on the scale of the Carrington Event now (and there’s a 12 per cent chance of one hitting the Earth before 2022), the effects might have a radically different impact on our advanced civilisation. If a CME with the same intensity were to hit the Earth head-on, it could cause catastrophic damage.

A National Research Council report in 2008 estimated that another Carrington Event could lead to a disruption of US infrastructure that could take between four and 10 years – and trillions of dollars – to recover from. Particularly vulnerable are the massive transformers on which our entire power system relies. Massive fluxes in magnetic energy can easily overload a transformer’s magnetic core, leading to overheating and melting of their copper cores. In the worst-case scenario, a repeat of the Carrington Event would cripple our infrastructure so severely it could lead to an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a threat utterly unknown to our ‘less civilised’ ancestors.

Rat Cages

Fascinating critique of the idea that drugs cause drug addiction (I'm quoting at length because this section sets up the whole rest of the piece):

The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.” But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

The whole piece is well worth a read, especially for the results of a similar experiment on the heroin addicts in Portugal. The author also has a book.

When the Body Attacks Itself

Meghan O'Rourke on the bewildering, self-alienating experience of an auto-immune disease:

To be sick in this way is to have the unpleasant feeling that you are impersonating yourself. When you’re sick, the act of living is more act than living. Healthy people, as you’re painfully aware, have the luxury of forgetting that our existence depends on a cascade of precise cellular interactions. Not you.

Reading Minds to Serve Ads

Raffi Khatchadourian writing for The New Yorker about how an effort to teach computers to read emotions got hijacked by the marketing industry.

The free economy is, in fact, an economy of the bartered self. But attention can never be limitless. Kaliouby put me in touch with Thales Teixeira, the business professor who collaborated with her, and we met at the Harvard Club in New York. “There are three major fungible resources that we as individuals have,” he said. “The first is money, the second is time, and the third is attention. Attention is the least explored.” Teixeira had recently tried to calculate the value of attention, and found that, like the dollar, its price fluctuated. Using Super Bowl ads as a rough indicator of the high end of the market, he determined that in 2010 the price of an American’s attention was six cents per minute. By 2014, the rate had increased by twenty per cent—more than double inflation. The jump had obvious implications: attention—at least, the kind worth selling—is becoming increasingly scarce, as people spend their free time distracted by a growing array of devices. And, just as the increasing scarcity of oil has led to more exotic methods of recovery, the scarcity of attention, combined with a growing economy built around its exchange, has prompted R. & D. in the mining of consumer cognition.

Podcast Episode 7: Not a Phone Person

It's amazing to think how rapidly communication technolgies have changed just over the course of my lifetime. I'm not even 40 years old, but I can remember a time when there were only two ways to communicate over a long distance: by letter or by phone. And for most of my youth, that phone was plugged directly into the wall.

These days, you can choose to send an email, send a text, send a Facebook message or write directly on the person's Facebook wall, Tweet at them or send a direct message, snapchat, Facetime, Skype, etc. If Apple has their way, people will soon be virtually tapping on each other's wrists.

The latest episode of my podcast is a case study in the technology of communication. Specifically, it's the story of one woman who struggled against all the technological tools of communication, who didn't even enjoy talking on the telephone, while living apart from the man she loves.

Video Review of Due

One of the most indispensable apps on my phone is Due, a reminders app that’s simply better at reminding me to do stuff than anything else I’ve ever tried. It got a lot better with its update to Due 2 this week. Its $5 for new customers, and the developer has finagled a $3 price for old customers through in-app purchase.

If you want to read a detailed review of the updated version, I highly recommend the review over at MacStories and the review at Beautiful Pixels. What I’ve created below is just a simple video demonstrating my favorite details of the app.

Time Is Money but Money Is Not Time

The Economist on why we all feel so busy:

The relationship between time, money and anxiety is something Gary S. Becker noticed in America’s post-war boom years. Though economic progress and higher wages had raised everyone’s standard of living, the hours of “free” time Americans had been promised had come to nought. “If anything, time is used more carefully today than a century ago,” he noted in 1965. He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

That economic prosperity would create feelings of time poverty looked a little odd in the 1960s, given all those new time-saving blenders and lawnmowers. But there is a distinct correlation between privilege and pressure. In part, this is a conundrum of wealth: though people may be earning more money to spend, they are not simultaneously earning more time to spend it in. This makes time—that frustratingly finite, unrenewable resource—feel more precious.

Humans Speaking for Themselves

This episode of the poscast Love + Radio is a perfect exampe of the power of great tape. The story begins when a guy named Jerome catcalls a radio producer.

When Jerome called out to her in the street, she pulled out her microphone and asked if he could repeat what he said to her. This is the conversation that followed.

Love + Radio made a name for itself early on with its amazing sound design and musical scoring. But what I love about the way the show has evolved is its focus on people. Most episodes are sound portraits of unlikely characters, many of them disreputable characters: bank robbers, extortionists, strip club managers. But it never feels like the show is exploiting its subjects, judging them, or sensationalizing them. The interviewer might challenge them, but they always get to speak for themselves.

This, to me, is the real potential value of podcasts. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote of radio:

Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.

Most episodes of Love + Radio could never appear on the actual radio. Podcasting made this show possible. We should all strive to take advantage of that opportunity. If you're making a podcast, don't just sit in front of your computer talking to people you already know. Try to turn your microphone outwards at the world, to increase the number of human voices (both reputable and disreputable) speaking for themselves.

Before and After a Tweet

Andrew Goldman has written a harrowing essay For Slate on how a tweet can ruin your life. He doesn't come off as especially sympathetic in the piece, but I do think he perfectly captures the way the internet can amplify our basest impulses if we make the mistake, in moments of weakness, of casting those base impulses into public language.

In light of what happened after, this is the moment I’ve thought about every day since, the thing that my mind always goes to when I can’t sleep and I need to take inventory of the great mistakes and regrets of my life. How, as a father of two, could I have been so selfish and shortsighted to risk a steady paycheck? It’s been 801 days now and, whenever I see 3 a.m., it’s still there, hanging on to the No. 1 blackest spot in my soul.


Emily Nussbaum, one of the characters in Goldman's story, has weighed in with a series of tweets arguing that Goldman's offending tweet wasn't as important to his downfall as he thinks.

Serial and the Triumph of Tape

Much has been written about Serial (no spoilers ahead) over the course of its first season, with a lot of folks arguing that it’s ushered in a new era for podcasting. (Never mind that this new era has been ushered in several times before.) The success of Serial has been pinned primarily on the compelling mystery of its true-crime story. But just as frequently, people talk about how “well-edited” and “well-produced” it is, compared to most podcasts, which makes sense, because Serial’s parent program, This American Life, is certainly among the most carefully edited and produced programs on public radio.

But I wonder if people outside the world of radio journalism realize exactly what they mean by “well-edited” and “well-produced,” why Serial sounds so different from most other podcasts. In all the discussion about podcasting this fall, I’ve haven’t heard much talk about the different kinds of podcasting — the taxonomy of podcasting, as it were. "Podcasting” is not a genre; it's a medium. There are as many different kinds of podcasts as there are kinds of TV shows. Comparing Serial to WTF with Marc Maron is like comparing The Wire to the Daily Show.

Part of this confusion comes from the fact that radio, especially public radio, has long mixed genres, sometimes even within the same show. There are pre-taped and edited interview shows like Fresh Air, live to tape discussion shows like Here and Now, variety shows like Prairie Home Companion, and news programs like All Things Considered and Marketplace.

Some of these shows blur the boundaries between genres, mixing interviews with scripted essays and documentary style reportage. But it was arguably This American Life that set the bar for using all powers of radio to tackle its weekly themes, switching mid-show from a documentary story to an essay by David Sedaris to a radio drama, perhaps set to verse, about farm animals. Part of the reason This American Life inspired a generation of young listeners to go into making radio is that Ira Glass demonstrated how powerful the medium can actually be, how many different forms it can take.

But as much as I love the ambition inherent in TAL’s variety, I’ve enjoyed it less and less over time. These days, when the show cuts to a scripted personal essay, a work of fiction, or a parable about a squirrel, it has to be really good for me to keep listening. And when I think back on the most powerful moments from the show, I always think of episodes devoted to a single subject, like the episode about the prison production of Hamlet, or Harper High School, or the two girls switched at birth.

What those episodes (and the shorter stories like them) contain is what print journalists call “reporting” and what radio journalists call “tape” (an anachronistic but persistent term that Ira Glass discussed at the recent Third Coast Audio Festival): a journalist had a question, he or she went out into the world (or through a telephone line), asked questions of real people, and came back with answers.

You could just call this “investigative journalism,” but that term tends to only be associated with uncovering crimes or scandals, whereas this kind of reporting can be employed in even the most personal of stories. One of my favorite examples from This American Life is a story Starlee Kine did about her parents' divorce. The story starts off sounding like a semi-comical personal essay about Kine’s mother (who did crazy things like forging her husband’s signature to buy a house without his permission), but it turns dramatically more emotional when Kine interviews her actual father over the phone, asking him why he didn’t divorce his wife sooner.

Starlee Kine: It's quite a mystery why you fought so hard to keep this marriage together that you guys were never happy in. Like, never.

Father: Because I felt that I was primarily responsible for her unhappiness.

Starlee Kine: That's not true, Dad.

This exchange has almost no resonance in print. And it would have very little resonance if Kine scripted it herself. But when you listen to the tape, you can hear the pain in her father's voice as he makes this admission, and you can hear the sadness and love in Kine’s voice as she tells him it’s not true.

This is the power of tape, and I’d argue it’s a power tape has over any other form of journalism. Print can’t convey the full texture of emotion in a conversation, and film often shines too bright a light to get into these private moments of our lives. Tape bridges the divide, capturing reality without distorting it too much, and remaining sharable in its original, organic form.

I remember one of the first radio stories I ever made, I went to chaperone a prom with my wife (a high school teacher), and I just ran the recorder all night long, interviewing, capturing sounds and scenes. When I got home, I felt like I’d returned from the forest with gnarled pieces of old wood under my arm, ready to start building my sculpture. That's what gathering tape can feel like.

What makes Serial special, for me at least, is not that it’s just a good yarn, though that certainly helps. It’s that much of the yarn is made of tape, and so many different kinds of tape: journalist interviews, police interviews, court testimony, scenes in cars and parking lots, and of course those phone calls from the Maryland Correctional Facility. The story was compelling because it felt so immediate, so real. Tape was what made it real.

There’s nothing new about this kind of reporting, and there’s nothing new about using great tape to keep listeners on the edge of their seats. What’s new is that the medium of podcasting let Serial go deeper, for longer, to gather and sift and edit together so much tape so compellingly that millions of people kept coming back week after week to the same story.

The podcasts I found most exciting in 2014 were shows like HowSound, Re:Sound, Death, Sex & Money, The Longest Shortest Time and Radiotopia shows like Strangers, Love + Radio, and Radio Diaries: shows that feature the voices and lives of the un-famous, endlessly interesting real people in our world. This is why, when I recently decided to get back into radio and start my own podcast, I set out to interview people from all walks of life. I hope Serial inspires more podcasters to make shows like this, with less talk and more tape.

The Decline of Reading?

Alexis Madrigal on the sad state of reading in the US:

Remember the good old days when everyone read really good books, like, maybe in the post-war years when everyone appreciated a good use of the semi-colon? Everyone's favorite book was by Faulkner or Woolf or Roth. We were a civilized civilization. This was before the Internet and cable television, and so people had these, like, wholly different desires and attention spans. They just craved, craved, craved the erudition and cultivation of our literary kings and queens.

Well, that time never existed.

Podcast Episode 5: Sometimes You Wish Not to Have a Phone

The latest episode of my podcast is available.

I teach students from all around the world, but the majority of my international students are African, and they are constantly on their phones. Of course, all my students are on their phones, but the African students in particular seem to be haunted by these devices. More than once, I’ve seen a student driven nearly out of their mind by the number of phone calls they receive. They’ll often receive calls in the middle of class, to which they respond by answering the call, whisper-shouting, “Class, class, class!” and hanging up.

It took a while for me to realize that these phone calls were not coming from local friends, family, or significant others, but rather from back home, from friends and family living thousands of miles away. So I wanted to talk to one of these students about what it’s like to carry this device with you that connects you to your past, your former home, and all those people who want to reach you day and night.

Playing at Programming

I know next to nothing about programming, but I love apps that make me feel like a programmer. Some of my favorite examples on the Mac have been Keyboard Maestro, Text Expander, Hazel, and Automator, each of which allows you to create what are essentially mini-programs, without knowing a bit of code.

The most recent exciting entry in this category is Workflow, which has been called Automator for iOS, and which has gotten some great reviews. As soon as I downloaded it, I set out to see if I could build a workflow that solved a problem I’ve had for a long time: creating a link post directly from within Instapaper on my iPhone. I made a video to demonstrate how I built it.

Update: I've since played around a lot more with Workflow and created this much more robust version of the link post action. This is new version creates a Markdown formatted link post from Instapaper (may work with other apps with the system share sheet) and sends it to Drafts.

First copy some text for the block quote, then run the workflow from the share sheet. You will have the option to input the "link text," which is the text before and inside the brackets. You will then have the option to input "post link text" which is anything that would come after the inline link. Then the workflow will create a Markdown formatted link post in Drafts.

Download the workflow here.

Technology as Exoskeleton

I've always thought Aliens (with an s) was a more entertaining movie than the original Alien, but Tim Carmody makes a great argument for why Aliens is also a brilliant movie about technology.

That’s what technology is. It’s the world of things, some impossibly stupid, some smarter than we are, we have assembled around ourselves to cover over our fundamental weaknesses as a species. The strength we have, the advantage this gives us, is our ability to stand apart from the things we’ve made: to use them and set them aside; to make them prosthetic extensions of ourselves and to let them go.