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.

Government-Funded Innovation

One point leapt out at me in Michael Hanlon's piece for or Aeon about why so many scientific and technological innovations occurred during the period he calls the "Golden Quarter," between 1945 and 1971, and why the pace of innovation has slowed since. The surprising fact is just how many of those innovations came not from private enterprise but from publicly funded research.

The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania. (Even the 19th-century analytical engine of Charles Babbage was directly funded by the British government.) The early internet came out of the University of California, not Bell or Xerox. Later on, the world wide web arose not from Apple or Microsoft but from CERN, a wholly public institution. In short, the great advances in medicine, materials, aviation and spaceflight were nearly all pump-primed by public investment. But since the 1970s, an assumption has been made that the private sector is the best place to innovate.

Podcast Episode 4: Interrogating the Compound

I've always been fascinated by science, but I decided early on that being fascinated wasn't enough. To conduct experiements, take measurements, use laboratory equipment (without breaking anything), and get reliable results, you need to be a detail-oriented person, more detail-oriented than I will ever be.

So it was a lot of fun, on the latest episode of my podcast, to talk to a real scientist, the chemist Daron Janzen, about his work. He uses a device called an X-ray diffractometer, shooting X-rays at crystals, in order to examine, in precise detail, the structure of molecules and how they fit together inside the crystal.

The X-ray diffractometer that lives in a room two floors above Daron’s office at St. Catherine University. Using powerful software, it can construct a scale model, almost like a photograph, of what a single molecule actually looks like.

The X-ray diffractometer that lives in a room two floors above Daron’s office at St. Catherine University. Using powerful software, it can construct a scale model, almost like a photograph, of what a single molecule actually looks like.

We also discuss how Professor Janzen's love of detail, of predicatbility, and of organization led directly to the work he's doing today, studying matter in its most highly organized form.

Printing Flesh

Jerome Groopman on the growing use of 3-D printing in medicine:

Almost every day, I receive an e-mail from my hospital’s press office describing how yet another colleague is using a 3-D printer to create an intricately realistic surgical model—of a particular patient’s mitral valve, or finger, or optic nerve—to practice on before the actual operation. Surgeons are implanting 3-D-printed stents, prosthetics, and replacement segments of human skull. The exponents of 3-D printing contend that the technology is making manufacturing more democratic; the things we are choosing to print are becoming ever more personal and intimate. This appears to be even more true in medicine: increasingly, what we are printing is ourselves.

More Money, Fewer Feelings

There's a lot of research to show that, as long as you aren't living in poverty, making more money doesn't make you any happier. But according to Michael Lewis, writing for The New Republic, there's also evidence to support the theory (admittedly not super-shocking) that making more money can actually make you more of a jerk.

A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s.

Artisanal Memory Banks

Jody Rosen’s piece on The Knowledge (the legendary test London cabbies have to take to prove they’ve memorized every street, corner, landmark, and business location in their entire labrynthine city) is one of the most compelling works of journalism I've read in a long time. It teems over with fascinating details about the history of London, the history of this test, the people who take it, and the effect it has on their lives, down to the cellular level.

Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London, has spent 15 years studying cabbies and Knowledge boys. She has discovered that the posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain known to be important for memory, is bigger in London taxi drivers than in most people, and that a successful Knowledge candidate’s posterior hippocampus enlarges as he progresses through the test. Maguire’s work demonstrates that the brain is capable of structural change even in adulthood. The studies also provide a scientific explanation for the experiences of Knowledge students, the majority of whom have never pursued higher education and profess shock at the amount of information they are able to assimilate and retain.

Rosen makes the case that storing this vast array of knowledge inside the brain cells of living human beings is a noble pursuit even if technology can do it for us.

The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge — for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity. London’s taxi driver test enshrines knowledge as — to use the au courant term — an artisanal commodity, a thing that’s local and homespun, thriving ideally in the individual hippocampus, not the digital hivemind.

Everything Is Contaminated

If I were a scientist, articles like this one from Ed Yong would terrify me:

You’ve got a group of people with a mysterious disease, and you suspect that some microbe might be responsible. You collect blood and tissue samples, you extract the DNA from them using a commonly used kit of chemicals, and you sequence the lot. Eureka! You find that every patient has the same microbe—let’s say Bradyrhizobium, or Brady for short. Congratulations, you have discovered the cause of Disease X.

Don’t celebrate yet.

You run the exact same procedure on nothing more than a tube of sterile water and… you find Brady. The microbe wasn’t in your patients. It was in the chemical reagents you used in your experiments. It’s not the cause of Disease X; it’s a contaminant.

Apparently, this is turning out to be the case in a lot of experiments.

Confessing for a Living

Amazing story by Hannah Rosin about her former friend and colleague Stephen Glass, who became infamous for inventing many of the stories he wrote for The New Republic. My favorite detail is about Glass's current job at a personal injury law firm, where he works under a man named Paul Zuckerman:

When clients come in, Steve helps the firm get them ready for trial. The first thing he does is tell them who he is. He says he worked at a magazine and he lied and made up stories and covered them up. He says he got caught, that Hollywood made a movie about it and that there are many people “who dislike me and rightly so.” He has done this about a dozen times a month, for the last decade, meaning that the conference room in the firm’s modern, exposed-brick office has become his equivalent of Zuckerman’s dingy room, where Steve confesses, over and over again.

Zuckerman has Steve do this so the clients won’t find out about his history themselves and because he has to explain why Steve can never appear in court. But there is a deeper reason. In the firm’s lore, personal-injury work is like evangelism. “We are dealing with people who have not only been injured; they’ve been broken and need to be made whole,” says Zuckerman. In order to do that, the lawyers need to know the whole truth about a person, even secrets they’ve never confessed to anyone. But the clients are often afraid to disclose the truth because they fear it will hurt their case. So the lawyers have to work on them. “You can lie to your priest and lie to your wife,” Zuckerman says, “but you can’t lie to us.”

Incredible that this man, made famous for lying, now has to tell the truth about himself over and over again, in order to get others to do the same.

Consciousness-Free Intelligence

Kevin Kelly writing for Wired about how artificial intelligence will differ from our concept of human intelligence:

In fact, this won’t really be intelligence, at least not as we’ve come to think of it. Indeed, intelligence may be a liability—especially if by “intelligence” we mean our peculiar self-awareness, all our frantic loops of introspection and messy currents of self-consciousness. We want our self-driving car to be inhumanly focused on the road, not obsessing over an argument it had with the garage. The synthetic Dr. Watson at our hospital should be maniacal in its work, never wondering whether it should have majored in English instead. As AIs develop, we might have to engineer ways to prevent consciousness in them—and our most premium AI services will likely be advertised as consciousness-free.

Chimp Technology

I knew Chimpanzees had been observed using some rudimentary tools but this piece by Mary Roach for National Geographic is crazy:

In 2007 Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University, reported that a Fongoli female chimp named Tumbo was seen two years earlier, less than a mile from where we are right now, sharpening a branch with her teeth and wielding it like a spear. She used it to stab at a bush baby—a pocket-size, tree-dwelling nocturnal primate that springs from branch to branch like a grasshopper. Until that report, the regular making of tools for hunting and killing mammals had been considered uniquely human behavior. Over a span of 17 days at the start of the 2006 rainy season, Pruetz saw the chimps hunt bush babies 13 times. There were 18 sightings in 2007. It would appear the chimps are getting creative.

Podcast Episode 2: A Horrible Experience

The term "digital divide" was coined to describe the modern chasm that has opened up in the last two decades between those who have free access to the internet and those who do not. The assumption behind the term is that those without such access are doubly disadvantaged. First, they lack the income and means to afford that digital access, and second, they lack the opportunities that such access would provide.

But some of the people living on the other side of that divide do so by choice. The second episode of my new podcast features one such voluntary digital refugee: my older brother, Scott. If you listened to the first episode of my podcast, you know that Scott has been delivering pizzas for almost fifteen years, and that he is obsessed with cars. What you do not know is that he lives almost completely disconnected from the network of modern life: he has no internet, no email address, no cable TV, no satallite, not even an antenna for his television, and only in the last year has he acquired a bank account and a telephone. He keeps the telephone in his car.

In this episode, we discuss why he hates computers and especially the internet, and how, despite his hate, the internet helped him solve a question he’s had since the day he was born.

I published this episode one week early because I'm excited to get this thing out in the world, but future episodes will come out every two weeks. If you have ideas for people I should interview for the show (people whose lives have been dramatically impacted by technology of any kind) email me at or tweet me @robmcmyers.

The Invention of the Future

From The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years by Ian Mortimer:

There can be no doubt that technology hugely changed the ways in which we lived and died in the 20th century. However, it also masks changes that are arguably even more profound. In 1900 few people seriously considered the future. William Morris and a few socialists wrote utopian visions of the world they wanted to see, but there was little serious consideration of where we were going as a society. Today we predict almost everything: what the weather will be, what housing we will need, what our pensions will be worth, where we will dispose of our rubbish for the next 30 years and so on. The UN predicts world population levels up to the year 2300. Global warming reports are hot news. Novels about the future are 10 a penny. Newspapers and online newsfeeds are increasingly full of stories of what will happen, not what has happened.

(via Kottke)

Time Shifting

Stacey D’Erasmo, writing for the New Yorker online about how the internet is changing our relationship to time:

If it’s an anxious moment concerning time, it’s also a playful and expansive one. All temporal bets are off, including, given climate change, the seasons. It’s still one earth, but it is now subtended by a layer of highly elastic non-time, wild time, that is akin to a global collective unconscious wherein past, present, and future occupy one unmediated plane.

I’ve long thought that one of the reasons adult life feels like it passes much more quickly is that most adults no longer have the sign posts of the school year to keep track of time passing. But it occurs to me with this article that many other sign posts have gone away.

With the advent of time-shifted television, we no longer pin days of the week to certain TV programs. With the advent of email, we no longer feel the passing of time between sending a letter and receiving a response. With the advent of digital photography, we no longer have to get our photos developed. With the advent of Facebook, we no longer have to wait for Christmas cards to see pictures of the people we used to know, and their children.

It's not an original observation, but there is a downside to eliminating all this waiting. I once told a co-worker that whenever I was forced to restart my computer, it always felt like the least productive two minutes of my entire life. It's perhaps inevitable that the more digital technology reduces the time we used to spend waiting for things, the less patient we become.