Have you ever wondered how to make your podcast sound more like all your favorite podcasts - the really, really good ones that we all love? This is our audio cheat sheet and an homage to some of our favorite podcasts.
Starlee Kine’s friend Noel works in advertising. In 2003, Noel was working in at an agency in Richmond, VA. Everyone wanted to work on flashy spots like Apple or Nike or Gatorade. Do you know what wasn’t flashy? Insurance. Which is why when a company called Geico became a client everyone hoped the campaign wouldn’t end up on their desk. Noel ultimately got stuck with Geico. His job was help them somehow figure out a clever, not painfully boring way to explain how simple it was for people to sign up for their insurance online.
Maybe you see where this is going.
But you don’t know where it came from.
Starlee Kine guides us back through the surprising, culturally rich path of inspiration that ultimately resulted in a commercial for an insurance company.
This story originally appeared at Pop Up Magazine #6 in San Francisco.
Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music.” I like that.
Of course that was before audio recording, so now, for the most part, music is frozen music.
It’s only very recently in the history of music that we’ve been able to freeze music into an object. In my life, the form of this object mattered a lot. I once bought vinyl albums and cassette tapes, where there were two first songs per album, Side A and Side B. The energy of a first song makes it stand apart, at least in my head it does. Then the CD came along and eliminated Side B and there was only first song, and the actual number of a track (that you see prominently on the UI) became my index for sorting songs. Then MP3s jumbled my sense of track order, and albums began to feel more like a loose grouping of individual pieces rather than a conceptual whole. I could name hundreds more examples like these, and I welcome you to chime in, but my point is: the form of the thing matters.
But no effect has been as world changing as that original innovation: freezing music in time onto a recording, where a single version of a song, a single performance of a song, became the song. An inherently mutable method of communication was fundamentally changed.
I heard a radio broadcast several years ago that really affected the way I thought about all this. Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot are the hosts of a radio program I’m a huge fan of called Sound Opinions (subscribe now). The songwriter, composer, and producer, Jon Brion came to WBEZ in Chicago to talk to Sound Opinions in 2006. At the time, Brion has just co-produced Kanye West’s album Late Registration and he was also already a renowned film composer. In this interview, Brion talks about the difference between what he calls “performance pieces” and “songs” and how recorded music has changed the way we appreciate the different art forms.
Special thanks to Sound Opinions for allowing me to rebroadcast this segment. Extra special thanks to SoOps producers, Robin Linn and Jason Saldanha, for being two of my favorite people in public radio.
While we’re on the subject of broadcasts that have changed my life, you should go to PRX and listen to a radio series called The Wire, from the CBC. This eight-part series examines the impact of electricity on music. It’s stunning. It won a Peabody and a Prix Italia and a Third Coast International Audio Festival Award and is probably my favorite radio series of all time.
If you’re a beer nerd, or have a friend who’s a beer nerd, you’ve heard of Belgian beers. Belgians take beer very seriously. Amongst the 200 Belgian breweries, there’s a very specific sub-type: Trappist beers.
According to our reporter Cyrus Farivar (also from Episode #36 “Super Bonn Bon”), there are two things you need to know about Trappist beers. First, they’re amazing. Second, they’re made by Trappist monks. These monks trace their roots to a monastery in 17th century France, and have since spread out to all over the world.
The main concept behind the Trappist lifestyle is that the abbey should be economically self-sufficient. In other words, the monks should make something and sell it to the public as a way to fund the operations of the abbey itself. Some make cheese. Some make spirits. There’s even one in Germany that makes lentil soup. But none of the Trappist products are as famous as the beer.
The beer that is considered the best of the best is Westvleteren 12. With its plain brown bottle, no label, the only writing is on the cap- the beer is super cool. It’s quite rare and year after year it’s rated the best beer in the world.
But here’s the thing about Westvleteren. You can’t just go there and have as much beer as you want. You can’t even have it shipped from the abbey. If you want to buy beer to take with you, you have to look up the beer reservation phone number on the abbey’s website. Then, you call certain phone number during certain hours, on certain days.
If you’re lucky enough to talk to a monk to take your reservation, you have to give your license plate number and be available to come pick up your crate during the appointed time that weekend. You’re limited to one crate per person per car, maximum two per car. And, you can’t buy more than one crate during a 60-day period. You also have to agree not to resell the beer.
This sort of thing is not unheard of: velvet ropes and random reward have long been imposed to create artificial scarcity to heighten demand, but the mainstream trend today seems to be more geared toward greater access and accommodation for customers. The new ideal is that everything is available, at all times, no matter where you live. Yet the Westvleteren Trappists are trying to make it as difficult as possible.
Jef van den Steen, author of a book called Trappist: The Seven Heavenly Beers and an acclaimed brewer himself, says that’s not the case, “Before, Westvleteren was only well-known was in Belgium. And now it’s worldwide, and that’s the problem. They decide we will brew the same amount as the last 40-50 years, and they have enough for that, so why must they brew more? Because you want? No. They live between the walls of the abbey, so for them it’s not a problem.”
The “customer service” is not designed to provide convenience for the consumer of their beer, it is designed for monks themselves. Their “customer” is God, so to speak. They have a mission, and making beer is only a fraction of that. The Head of the Abbey says, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
Cyrus Farivar recently returned to California after having lived in Bonn, Germany for two years. These days, he can be found frequenting The Trappist bar in downtown Oakland. He plans on presenting a bottle of Westvleteren 12 to his favorite bar owners. His book, The Internet of Elsewhere, was published last year.
For an interesting discussion of my rattled off aside about black markets/piracy being a design problem and why I wish I could legally download “Game of Thrones” on demand go here and even (snicker) here. Most notably, this update by Erik Kain draws the best parallel between the Westvleteren Abbey and HBO. It comes down to this: service is provided to the customer that matters most. For the monks, that means God, for HBO that means the subscriber base and the cable companies.
US paper currency is so ubiquitous that to really look at its graphic design with fresh eyes requires some deliberate and focused attention. So pull out a greenback from your wallet (or look at a picture online) and really take it in. All the fonts, the busy filigree, the micro patterns…it’s just dreadful.
Even though paper currency itself, just idea of money, is a massive, world changing technology, the look and feel of US paper money is very stagnant. Richard Smith is the founder of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project and in an article in the New York Times, he pointed out five major areas where the design of US currency could improve: color, size, functionality, composition, and symbolism.
The worst aspects of the design of the greenback are illustrated in this video by Blind Film Critic Tommy Edison.
It just so happens that Australian currency addresses each and every one of the points made by Richard Smith. Tristan Cooke and Tom Nelson of the blog Humans in Design are big fans of all the design innovations in Australian money. Aussie polymer notes are varied in color, get larger with each denomination, are more durable and are generally considered better and easier to use than US currency.
But there are some interesting reasons why the greenback is the way it is. David Wolman, author of The End of Money, explains that the legacy features that make US paper money look stale and anachronistic are meant to convey stability and timelessness. Since the US economy is so important in the world economy, why mess with it? Some fear that changing the design of the currency significantly (or eliminating the penny) could undermine the faith in the federal reserve note.
Even though Tristan and Tom are fans of the Australian polymer bills, they share Wolman’s view that the more interesting future innovations are not going to have anything to do with physical cash. Clever user interfaces that help us manage our money better, while providing even greater convenience, are getting more refined and accepted. So that ugly $20 in your wallet may never actually get prettier and more functional, it’ll just be gone.
Extra: Below is the 2010 winner of Richard Smith’s Dollar ReDe$ign Project, submitted by Dowling Duncan.
What happens when we build big?
Julia Barton remembers going to the top floor of Dallas’s then-new city hall when she was teenager. The building, designed by I.M. Pei, is a huge trapezoid jutting out over a wide plaza. Julia found the view from the top pretty fantastic, especially when munching on a Caramello bar from the City Hall vending machines.
But once she went to a protest in the plaza below. And those same windows, now hulking over her, made her feel small, and the whole event insignificant. Texans have a fondness for big structures—big arenas, big houses, big freeways. Julia wasn’t sure if their hidden message wasn’t simply this: I’m important, you’re nobody.
For people who distrust the big project, Edward Tenner’s 2001 essay “The Xanadu Effect” is some comfort. Tenner, a visiting scholar at Princeton University, ponders the ways in which obsession with bigness can presage hard times for a business or even a nation. Tenner named his essay not for Olivia Newton-John’s anthem or even the Coleridge poem, but for the palace Xanadu built in the movie “Citizen Kane.” That Xanadu, of course, was based on a real-life palace that newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst built in his waning days of empire:
On its 24,000 acres were a 354,000-gallon swimming pool, a private zoo and four main buildings with a total of 165 rooms. Along with other such extravagances, the estate helped send Hearst into trusteeship late in life. The cavernous halls of Welles’ gloomy cinematic Xanadu seemed to filmgoers — as the real, happier building must have appeared to many Hearst Corp. public investors — the very image of the pride that goes before a fall.
The downside of the Xanadu Effect has seen itself play out in other places—the Empire State Building, for example, was conceived in the 1920s but completed during the Great Depression, when it was known as “the Empty State Building.” Tenner’s not arguing that big things shouldn’t be built; he’s saying bigness is a gamble. It pays off when it it uplifts people, gives them a sense of grandeur and purpose. It fails when it crushes them or just makes life a pain, as in the big-built city of Moscow, where pedestrians have to scurry under the wide avenues in tunnels:
(Above: A pedestrian tunnel in Moscow. Credit: Veronica Khokhlova)
On a recent reporting trip to Russia for PRI’s “The World,” Julia travelled to Sochi, Russia’s southern-most city and upcoming host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sochi is Europe’s biggest construction site right now, with Xanadu-like ice-palaces going up right on the Black Sea.
(Above: Big Ice Palace. Credit: Julia Barton)
All the construction—including billions of dollars of infrastructure—is good news for the Russian state and shoring up its presence in the Caucasus. It’s not necessarily good news for the locals. Julia interviewed a Sochi resident, Alexei Kravets, who’s been in a stand-off with authorities about the fate of the home he built by the Black Sea.
(Above: Alexei Kravets. Credit: Julia Barton)
Kravets’s court case to save his home has been standing in the way of a new railway complex. Construction workers have been throwing rocks through his windows, scraping his walls with backhoes, and hauling away his storage units. Kravets has been confronting them on film:
It’s a dramatic example of big vs. small, but this type of conflict often happens in the face of massive development. Edward Tenner says beyond just governments or private developers, we all need to think more carefully about the costs and benefits of building big.
“Bigness is a strategy that just about always fails, unless it succeeds. Or you could say it always succeeds except when it fails. And there really is no one way that you can regard it. You have to see it as a very powerful, easy-to-misuse, but also tempting way to go about things in life,” he says.
Julia Barton produced another great story from 99% Invisible about the Unsung Icons of Soviet Design. An all-time fav.
More audio from the Russian protest Julia attended on her own podcast, DTFD.
Julia’s story for PRI’s The World: Sochi 2014: Building Boom for Winter Olympics Leaves Some Behind
Even during the construction of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the deck would go up and down by several feet with the slightest breeze. Construction workers on the span chewed on lemon wedges to stop their motion sickness. They nicknamed the structure Galloping Gertie.
The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge design by Clark Eldridge was pretty conventional for a suspension bridge, but it was later modified by Leon Moisseiff to be slimmer and more elegant. The most notable change was that the 25 foot lattice of stiffening trusses underneath the bridge on the original drawings, were replaced with 8 foot solid steel plate girders. The new solid girder along the side in Moisseiff’s design made for a much lighter and more flexible bridge— it also caught the wind like a sail— but they didn’t know that. Moisseiff’s design was also 2/3 the price of the original Eldridge design and that fact ultimately won the day.
Motorists who used the bridge found out first hand why it got the name Galloping Gertie, and during the four months while the bridge was open, many traveled from far away just to ride the undulating waves as they crossed high above Puget Sound. The thrill ride didn’t last long.
On November 7, 1940 stiff winds caused the road deck to twist violently along its center axis. The center span endured these brutal torsional forces for about an hour and finally gave way.
The collapse of the twisting suspension bridge is one of the most dramatic images caught on film.
I talked to John Marr from the seminal zine Murder Can Be Fun for this story and I’d like to give a shout out to Alan Bellows of Damn Interesting for independently suggesting Galloping Gertie as a show topic and publishing a great, much more detailed account of the disaster on his site.
Special thanks to Benjamen Walker for the audio of Kathryn Schulz. That interview originally aired on his show Too Much Information in the episode called “Mistakes Were Made.”
Thanks also to Steve Burrows (from the Pyramids episode) who talked me through the basics of aeroelastic flutter and vortex shedding. Those explanations for the bridge failure were a little too unwieldy for the episode, but I’m glad I now know it!
“Cities exist to bring people together, but cities can also keep people apart”
– Daniel D’Oca, Urban Planner, Interboro Partners.
Cities are great. They have movement, activity and diversity. But go to any city and it’s pretty clear, a place can be diverse without really being integrated. This segregation isn’t accidental. There are design elements in the urban landscape, that Daniel D’Oca calls “weapons,” that are used by “architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, neighborhood associations, and individuals to wage the ongoing war between integration and segregation.”
Daniel D’Oca is an urban planner with Interboro Partners, an architecture and design firm based in New York City. Over the past few years, D’Oca, along with colleagues Tobias Armborst and Georgeen Theodore have been cataloging all the stuff inside of a city that planners use to increase or restrict people’s access to space. They’re publishing their findings in a book called The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion: 101 Things That Open And Close the City (Fall 2012).
D’Oca took our own Sam Greenspan and Scott Goldberg on a tour of Baltimore to demonstrate the subtle ways different neighborhoods are kept apart.
Interboro Partners described more weapons in the Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion in a great Esquire article.
(Above: Daniel D’Oca shows Sam Greenspan the iron fence at the site of the former Hollander Ridge housing project on the Baltimore County line. Credit: Scott Goldberg)
(Above: The residential parking permit zones on either side of Greenmount Ave. Permit only parking keeps non-residents, including students from nearby Johns Hopkins, from leaving their cars in the neighborhood.)
(Above: Plans for LLRH6, or Living and Learning Residence Hall by LTL Architects / Quinn Evans Architects. Notice the blue walls that provide the best contrast for seeing American Sign Language.)
The acoustics of a building are a big concern for architects. But for designers at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, it’s the absence of sound that defines the approach to architecture.
Gallaudet is a university dedicated to educating the deaf and hard of hearing, and since 2005, they’ve re-thought principles of architecture with one question at the forefront: how do deaf people communicate in space?
Unlike hearing people, the deaf have to keep sightlines in order to maintain conversations. So when deaf people walk and talk, they’ll lock into a kind of dance. Going through a doorway, one person will spin in place and walk backwards to keep talking. Walking past a column, two deaf people in conversation will move in tandem to avoid collision.
Spaces designed for the hearing can also give the deaf a great deal of anxiety – when you can’t hear footsteps from around the corner or behind you, you can’t anticipate who or what is around you.
Robert Sirvage is a deaf designer, researcher, and instructor at Gallaudet, and in collaboration with Hansel Bauman — who is not deaf – and a group of staff, students and architects, they’ve developed a project called DeafSpace. Reporter Tom Dreisbach took a tour through the new building at Gallaudet that is incorporating the innovations of DeafSpace to create an environment more pleasing to everyone, both hearing and deaf.
(Above: The SLCC or Sorenson Language and Communication Center by SmithGroup Architects)
I’d recently moved from the United States to my home country of Nigeria where queueing is a relatively recent practice: most places, especially banks, still get it wrong. I was in one of 2 lines -the american in me isn’t in love with the word ‘queue’- being served by 3 tellers. My line was directly in front of 1 teller, the other line to the right of me was in front of another teller and the third teller was off to the far right. So naturally those 2 tellers ended up serving that line while my line was almost exclusively being served by the 1 teller.
When I was in the front of my line, a lady 2 of 3 spots in line behind me started agitating about the other line moving faster and insisting that I should go to one of the 2 right tellers when the next person was called. When I didn’t respond to her and someone from the right line went up next, she pushed to the front of the line. I told her off roundly, and told her to get back to her place in line because her time was not any more important than everyone else in line ahead of her.
She was obviously very surprised, I think by 2 things: that, being younger, I spoke that sharply to her (that’s a societal no-no in Nigeria), and by my foreign accent. She looked at me for a second and then said in a sing song mocking tone: “ms. London, ms. America”
I came away from that encounter with a few things: here people generally do not have the sense of ownership to their place in line like I do, because so-called “VIPs” always get fast-tracked, also due to cultural norms older people also cut in and are excused, and -like in my encounter- anyone who’s loud enough or strong enough or assertive enough tries to do what that lady wanted to, and just cut in front of everyone and ‘everyone’ doesn’t want to make a fuss so stand in line quietly and let’s her go ahead.
…so there’s my story about queue theory. It’s a great show and I’m quite a fan -I.T
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