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July 12, 2007

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This American Brain


Aaron pointed me to Radio Lab, a public radio show about science.

Am excited to report that it is by far the coolest radio show I’ve ever heard — in the truest sensory meaning of the word. I think it might be the best radio show in the world. Or in history.

Forgive me. Am caught up in the throes of enthusiasm and hyperbole. But seriously: It’s great. Here’s why:

  • It’s about science.
  • It’s incredibly aggressive with audio montage: dialogue overlaps and spills over, music and sound effects pile up in layers, outtakes and asides shimmer at the edges. The result is astonishing, and dense in the best possible way.
  • It has a wonderful vocal style: They’ve completely rejected the voice-of-god format, as well as the voice-of-casual-god format, and even the voice-of-friendly-NPR-god format, and replaced it with a truly conversational, sometimes contentious tone. Very often, hosts will interrupt each other and say something like: “Wait, what? What does that even mean?”
  • Lovely, lilting, IDM-y music.
  • Only five episodes per season. This is an amount of media that I can actually process!

I’ve only listened to a few episodes but my favorite so far is Sleep. It includes: an explanation for the fact that you always sleep strangely on your first night in a new place, dolphins with parallel brains, the scourge of improperly folded proteins… and Tetris dreams.

So, I officially have a gigantic crush on this show — both because it’s good, interesting journalism, and because it’s such a palpably new way of doing radio.

Posted July 12, 2007 at 10:52 | Comments (17) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins, Briefly Noted, Media Galaxy, Radio


Oh Robin, if you had been faithfully keeping up with TAL you would have already heard a whole segment of Radio Lab replayed in last week's episode. This establishes incontrovertibly Ira's great, boundless benificence. Let us worship him, and never be unfaithful again.

The segment was part of the "Morality" episode of Radio Lab. I found their take on Mark Hauser's work somewhat lacking, but a pretty good introduction. I agree the tone of the show is fresh and pleasing.

While I've never had a Tetris dream, there was a time of my life when Dr. Mario figured prominently in my slumbers...

I too just discovered Radio Lab (from the segment played in the most recent This American Life). Like you, I'm impressed and love it (especially in light that I've completely exhausted the TAL episode archive). Radio Lab do an interesting novel thing where they combine sound effects to accentuate soundless story elements.

And boo to Peter for chastizing you. TAL isn't the end all and be all (especially now that their focus is mostly on TV...with lots of radio rebroadcasts). Cheers to you for finding Radio Lab without needing TAL to spoonfeed you interesting content....but then again...that's why you run this website...and I check it so regularily.

Posted by: kiki on July 13, 2007 at 06:41 AM

Peter: No no, see, it's exactly like one of those deals where a new religion co-opts an old religion by just like using the same holy days, etc. Soon you'll be listening to Radio Lab all the time and wondering whatever happened to the pagan goat sacrifice. Err, I mean, This American Life.

kiki: I'm impressed that you've listened to ALL the TAL episodes. That is a lot of radio!

Ira is a merciful lord. Perhaps he will permit your new program to flourish and not smite all the heathens. Perhaps.

I hadn't known about Radio Lab until I moved to Seattle last year (MPR doesn't carry it for some reason, which is sorta odd). It blew me away when I first heard it too. Only problem is they seem to only do about six episodes per year. Topically, it might be harder to do more though.

It's not just science-y, it's generally brainy. I like that they talk about Proust in the "Memory" episode.

They also employ a metaphor I'm increasingly interested in, which is memory as a file cabinet. The period of history in which people used file cabinets as a primary means of data storage is astonishingly short, maybe 150 years, but it proved to be really influential on the ways people thought about history, memory, information, etc.

Soon I shall try this new radio program that you mention. For sciency/brainy goodness I've been kicking it with podcasts of the BBC's "In Our Time with Melvin Bragg." Its a bit like Science Friday without the gee whiz, and much greater depth.

In terms of thinking like a file cabinet: there is a great book (well, its a bit long and a bit of slog sometimes--but those are forgivable sins)by Jon Agar called _the Government Machine_. It rewrites the history of the computer as a part of the history of bureaucracy: the machine made for the filer, by the filer, like the filer. The computer has since become a dominant metaphor in both biology (genetic 'code') and psychology (any number of cognitive science strains, as in memory theory). I don't actually know how important the file cabinet itself was as a seed for science: Tim, can you enlighten?

Oh man, that is SO interesting -- I need to check this book out -- b/c of course now the dominant paradigms in computers are changing, and fast. The era of the file and the folder is retreating; now it's all about massive clouds of unstructured data and overlapping tags. What external social forces have influenced this? What will it in turn influence?

Maybe I really oughtta read the new David Weinberger book.

Yeah, I'm interested in the Agar book, too. One book I've been recommending a lot is JoAnne Yates's Control Through Communication, which is about the information technology revolution between 1850-1920. Essentially, it's a history of the nineteenth century office, where three new technologies were crucial: the typewriter (obviously), carbon paper, and the vertical file cabinet. These dovetailed with the telegraph, telephone, gramophone, film, etc., to produce the predigital information regime of which we all saw the tail end.

Before the typewriter, carbons, and modern filing, the cost of producing, reproducing, storing and accessing documents was prohibitively high, and intensive in human labor. Think Bartleby the Scrivener, plus any memories you may have of trying to find documents in a flat file. And in addition to the file-and-folder, QWERTY keyboard, copy-and-paste paradigms that carried over to the PC, we also still largely measure our success here to the speed and ease which we can store, retrieve, and copy information.

I'm obviously more tuned these days to the literary-historical side of things than the scientific as such, but think about 19th-century representations of drowning under a sea of information, where we need some kind of organizational principle to make sense of it all. Think about the modernist assault on archives on the one hand and its valorization of a living sense of past history on the other -- which seems contradictory unless you start thinking about ways to sort out active vs. archival information, "live" vs. "dead" accounts. Nietzsche or James, Eliot or Pound sometimes read like advertising copy for new office technologies.

At any rate, that's where I'm headed with it right now.

(Backing up a little)

Check it:
Radio Lab "Sleep" Episode, starting 15:40, same soundtrack as Wholphin Volume 2 hidden track 2: "Born Like Stars"

I always liked the audio (not to mention the video!) for "Born Like Stars", but it never occured to me to look into it. Now I know it's "I'll Read You a Story" from the album Colleen et les Botes Musique.

With radio like this, and so many discoveries to be made, maybe I will fold my laundry every morning :).

(Advancing resolutely into my barely-related tangent:)

The notion of "information" in the nineteenth century is also interesting. Much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were spent by people finding new ways to commodify knowledge: to make little bits of data interchangeable and highly mobile (and purchasable). This narrative ends when it becomes possible for an engineer like Claude Shannon to make "information" a wholly abstract concept, as he did in his work on information entropy in 1948. So alongside those technologies that Yates highlights are other technologies (old school meta data: filing systems, standardized cards and categories) that made it possible to compare increasingly diverse kinds of knowledge and knowledge gathered by disparate individuals over long distances.

I like the spatial metaphors here -- "that's where I'm headed," "advancing resolutely," etc.

Any cases in history where something was claimed by commerce (i.e. made discrete, fungible, purchase-able) but then lost again? Seems like it's a pretty one-way street -- and I'm thinking now of modern Wall Street's attempts to further product-ize all sorts of odd, abstract financial 'goods' -- different kinds of risk, etc. -- but maybe I'm forgetting something obvious.

Well, and to begin to answer my own question, I wonder to what degree information (certain kinds, anyway) is becoming more and more like a public good. In undergrad econ you learn that public goods have two properties: 1) they are nonrival, i.e. we can both use them w/out either of us suffering as a result; 2) they are non-excludable, i.e. it's hard to restrict access for those that don't pay. Thus, the atmosphere is an obvious public good. So is national missile defense. Etc.

Traditionally digital goods have satisfied (1) but not (2) -- or at least, it was easy to engineer them such that (2) was not true. But nowadays, man, the digital world is like the leakiest sieve ever. DRM feels more and more like somebody trying to engineer the atmosphere so that they can charge access for it.

Might be interesting implications for who should pay for production of information if it truly is becoming more like a public good.

Tangent upon tangent. Sorry. Am going to go back to assembling my new Ikea drawers.

(But, going back to the end of Dan's comment -- the notion of universal fungibility is a very interesting one. There's still a lot of momentum around the idea of the semantic web -- basically a web of much richer metadata, where information describes itself and how it connects to other information -- so that smart computer programs could begin to connect & assemble all that information in much more meaningful ways than what is possible now.)

One of the ironies about metadata in the 19th century is that in order to keep good records for documents kept in a flat file or in a bound volume, you had to create endless indices to identify what it was that you had in any given container. And it's hard to add or sort information, both of which mess up the index.

With vertical filing, you largely solve that problem for loose-leaf documents (which is great for offices and individuals). But what's the greatest success of vertical filing cabinets for information science? The card catalogue. Which is basically just a big index-making machine.

It's almost as though at each moment, we move one or more hierarchies up in knowledge we can access directly. From needing a fixed index to know what's in a book, we create indexes in loose sortable categories that can find every book in a collection. Now, potentially, with the digital era, we can go both up and down, linking large collections with variable, multiple tags, plus full-text search. All the effort now is in creating and assembling the collection databases, and developing the mechanisms for access.

When you're talking archives and not news or opinions, access to the best collections and the richest data is still not a pure public good, even were Google to wish to make it so. Maybe the next effort will be to unite the search algorithms -- a single skeleton key to the world's knowledge. Or one ring to rule them all, depending on how you look at it.

To answer Robin's question about fungibility: you (and by "you," I mean sovereign princes in the 16th century) used to be able to give away the receipts on individual taxes to people that you liked (or to whom you owed money).

Imagine I am the Queen of England. (It's easier with this Boppy pillow around my neck.) I like Robin, Earl of Oxford, and he spent a lot of blood and treasure to help put down a Scottish uprising in the spring. So in addition to giving him a knighthood and making him a part of my privy chamber, I award him all the impost taxes on French wine. The revenue diverts from the treasury, and goes right to Robin, giving him a nice income. Robin in turn can sell his right to those taxes, convert it to currency, will it to his descendants, etc. We may have functional equivalents, but I don't think we do precisely that today.

Back to information. If I remember correctly, Friedrich Kittler argues that the concept of "media" really begins with the gramophone record -- before that, even with photography, we don't have reproducible media that doesn't look and store like a piece of paper. So just when we figure out what to do with paper, along come these big canisters. Radio messes things up even further, since it almost literally is a "medium" rather than a physical object. Part of the abstract idea of "information" or "media" seems to be overcoming these physical differences too.

Arguably, in the moment we're in now, we've succeeded in transforming virtually every kind of media or information source into the digital equivalent of paper. Music, video, photography -- we've flattened them out, turned them into files that can be put right next to word processing docs. And our PCs have become the screen (both communication device and material support) for those flattened forms of media: one machine becomes the principal device for text, music, photos, and movies -- especially if you make any of these yourself.

Re: Robin's question on making things purchasable---I'd point to people. When it comes to purchasing people history is full of oscillations, of making new ways to place value on lives even as old ones are restricted. There was chattel slavery, of course, which was very slowly done away with.

Children used to have significant economic value as parents could hire them out to contribute to the income of a family (similarly, a husband controlled the income of his wife though the nineteenth century), but even as labor laws restricted children in the workplace those same children came to be seen as 'priceless' objects who nevertheless would be given a (high) value by a court when a railroad accidentally ran over one. Thus an implicit deal is made as the life of a child is exchanged for a certain amount of money. Life insurance makes such exchanges explicit, but the way in which lives have been valued by those companies has changed a great deal over time, partly due to technologies for grouping and distributing individual risks based on criteria derived from medical data, geography, or occupation.

Re: Dan's fungibility of people -- you can also see this in the widespread practice of the weregild, ransom during wartime, etc. It's interesting, too, that the fungibility of people dies out around the same time the concept of thing-guilt does -- i.e., you can put objects on trial and either have them destroyed or give them over to the injured as punishment for their crimes. Pets still exist somewhere in this nether realm between persons under the law and objects of property.

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