Sunday, October 19, 2014

Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is still searching for the perfect job title. In the meantime he’s making do with “experimental philosopher,” though he’s also been called a conceptual artist and a poet of ideas. His chosen form is the Gedankenexperiment, brought to life and acted out. In his decade-plus career he has “genetically engineered God,” made porn movies for plants, built a church to science and hustled extra-dimensional real estate. His latest venture: a consulting firm that trains bacteria for careers in corporate management. Microbial Associates has its public launch event at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco on October 21st.

Ludic, yes, but not ludicrous. For all the funning there’s a serious intent at the heart of Jonathon’s antics. By taking ideas to unreal extremes, Jonathon aims to explore the very real implications of our beliefs.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

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One-room schoolhouse: under the banner of Microbial Associates, Jonathon Keats is teaching business principles to bacteria in classrooms like this one. But his real hope is that we’ll learn from them. Photo courtesy of Modernism Gallery, San Francisco.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Singer, Songwriter, Banjo Player Abigail Washburn

Abigail Washburn always considered singing and songwriting a sideline and never thought she could make a career of it. But a sharp-eared music exec knew better. After overhearing her play at a bluegrass convention, he signed her on the spot to a Nashville record deal. She set aside her plans to become a lawyer in China, took up music full time, turned out a series of highly regarded albums and began a musical partnership with banjo master Béla Fleck. Then came love, marriage, baby carriage – and now their first duo album. Abby and I talked about her highly empathetic approach to song, the evolution of her voice, how a suburban Midwestern girl became a countrified tunesmith and how she and Béla learned to blend their two very different banjo styles and sensibilities.

 Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Check out our recent interview with Béla Fleck here.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brian Greene on Time, Gravity & Teaching Physics

I included parts of this interview on the radio show, but this online version is the first time it’s been available uncut. Brian was coming to Philip Glass’s Days and Nights Festival to present and narrate the film adaptation of his relativistic physics fable, Icarus at the Edge of Time. We talked about the principles the story conveys, especially the way gravity stretches time, and about his collaboration with Philip Glass, who composed the film’s score. Also, a bit on Brian’s passion for physics education, teaching free online courses at World Science U and grappling – literally – with fellow celebrity physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

If you want to dig much deeper into black hole physics, check out our previous interview with Brian here and this one with Leonard Susskind here.

 Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Ira Glass: Radio Ira, Real Ira

As Ira Glass was getting ready to perform Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host in our area as part of his cousin Philip Glass’s Days and Nights Festival, I grabbed the opportunity to chat with him. We talked about Three Acts, a movement-and-storytelling piece he created with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass. Willy-nilly the conversation turned to Ira’s radio career, the version of himself he plays on air and the benefits of keeping some things close to the vest.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Yael Kohen: The Rise of Women in Comedy

It’s taken decades, but women are finally catching up to men in the comedy business, with A-list stars like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman and Kristen Wiig. Have women comics achieved true equality?  And if so, why’d it take so friggin’ long? We talk to Yael Kohen about her oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. (Originally aired in 2012)

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jim Dwyer: False Convictions, Forensic Failures

The advent of DNA fingerprinting in the late ‘80’s did more than provide a new, more exacting way to connect criminals and their crimes. It exposed just how badly other forensic techniques could fail. There have been hundreds of wrongful convictions overturned thanks to DNA, and in case after case, forms of evidence and analysis thought to be reliable had actually helped jail the innocent. Everything from hair comparisons to blood spatter and fiber analysis to footprint matching – as well as eyewitness testimony and confessions – had led juries to woefully flawed conclusions.

Sherlock Holmes and CSI notwithstanding, it turns out a lot of forensic science isn’t so scientific after all. Some disciplines, like ballistics and hair matching, are merely inexact and error prone. Others, like “bite mark analysis,” are downright junk. Lacking clear baseline data, oversight and standards of verification, the results are too often subject to bias and liable to support whatever theory investigators have latched onto.

Jim Dwyer, Pulitzer Prizewinning reporter and columnist for the New York Times, has been covering wrongful convictions and DNA-based exonerations for years. He and I talked about the many ways conventional forensics can go wrong, as described and demonstrated in his recent eBook False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt and Science.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Max Brooks on WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters, Zombies & Him

Max Brooks’s own military service was cut short after a year in the ROTC (pronated feet), but he’s a serious student of warfare and military history. He’s written about those subjects fictionally in his novel World War Z and factually in The Harlem Hellfighters. The latter, a graphic novel that cracked the NYT best-seller list earlier this year, tells the story of a heroic black U.S. regiment in World War One who fought the Germans abroad and racism at home. Max and I talked about the Hellfighters and the nature of bigotry then and now. Also:

  • His thoughts on the “Great War” and its lingering impact on the U.S., 100 years (almost to the week) after its outbreak.
  • The responsibilities of war-waging and nation-building.
  • Our shared affection for Studs Terkel and his oral histories.
  • The popularity of Zombie fiction. Max has been described as the “best-selling zombie writer of all time.”
  • His own battles with dyslexia, self-doubt and the stigma of being a “legacy kid” (he’s the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft).
  • His current efforts to turn the Harlem Hellfighters into a movie.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

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Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, aka “The Harlem Hellfighters”

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg: How Not to Be Wrong

In the summer of 2011, a political talking point made the rounds claiming that the state of Wisconsin under governor Scott Walker had produced more than half of the country’s new jobs for the month of June. Sure enough, America’s Dairyland had added 9,500 private sector jobs, while only 18,000 had been created nationwide. But there’s a catch: that 18,000 figure measured net new jobs, factoring in the many jobs lost across the country along with the tens of thousands created. In fact, job growth in a number of states actually outpaced Wisconsin’s. Texas alone added 32,000 jobs, so you could say, nonsensically, that it contributed 180% of the national total.

That load of hooey is far from the most egregious example of the muddled math that gets promulgated these days, not just by fact-spinning political hacks but also well-meaning journalists and public explainers. And our current infatuation with numerical evidence and data-driven everything isn’t going to help if we’re unequipped to interpret the numbers intelligently.

"The point of math isn’t solving problems," mathematician Jordan Ellenberg told me, "it’s understanding stuff." Jordan and I discussed some of the many ways we misunderstand stuff – "we’ meaning just about everyone, including the media, would-be experts and even some scientists – and how we can do better. Jordan is the author of the acclaimed new book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Auditory Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz: Adventures in Sound

(From 2013) Sound as vibration, sound as sensation, sound as manipulation. Sound as a state of mind and as a weapon. Seth Horowitz considers sonic phenomena from these and other angles in his book The Universal Sense. And he’s a good one to do it: as a neuroscientist specializing in auditory phenomena, sound recordist, musician and aural explorer, not to mention the guy who proved that tadpoles can hear, Seth is a well-travelled guide to the sonic world. He and I listened to a sampling of audio curiosities while contemplating questions such as:

  • What’s faster, our ears or our eyes?
  • What’s it like to be a bat?
  • What’s it like to be Evelyn Glennie?
  • How do we build a picture of the world from auditory clues?
  • Why are low sounds ominous?
  • Can sounds kill?

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Composer/Musicians Béla Fleck and Dylan Mattingly

Banjo phenom Béla Fleck was here in town last week performing his concerto The Impostor with the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. We talked about his sometimes nerve-racking foray into orchestral composition, captured in his documentary film How to Write a Banjo Concerto. We also discussed the influence of Earl Scruggs and his more complicated relationship with the music of that other Béla (Bartok), who he was named after.

Then a conversation with Dylan Mattingly, lauded by his mentor John Adams as “a hugely talented young composer who writes music of wild imagination and vigorous energy.” We talked about Dylan’s emotionally-driven compositions, including his tribute to Amelia Earhart (Atlas of Somewhere) and his soaring Sky Madrigal, which just debuted at the Cabrillo Festival. We also listened to and discussed selections from his choral work inspired by Euripedes’ tragedy The Bakkhai, “an attempt to recreate the feeling of the unsettling, beautiful, horrifying, and ecstatic choruses of the play.”

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

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More on Dylan Mattingly here. More on Contemporaneous, the new music ensemble he plays in and co-founded here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Leonard Susskind: Plumbing the Universe

I first spoke to Lenny Susskind in 2010 about his long-running debate with Stephen Hawking on the nature of information and black holes, as retold in the book The Black Hole War. You can listen to that conversation here. This time around, we talked about Lenny himself: his humble beginnings as a plumber’s son in the Bronx, becoming a physicist, his thought process, his best ideas and some of his duds. Also, why he loves to explain physics to non-experts – a talent he put to good use in this interview, describing some of the initial insights that led to string theory and shedding light on the mind-stretching holographic principle. Overall, a very interesting glimpse into a highly original mind. (Originally broadcast in 2013.)

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mathemagician Persi Diaconis

When he was 14, Persi Diaconis ran away from home to become one of the world’s great magicians. Now he’s a world-class mathematician, and his two professions have more in common than you might think.

Persi and I had a very entertaining conversation about his careers in show biz and academe, covering topics such as:

  • His friendships with other magicians, including Ricky Jay, Randi and Dai Vernon
  • Some surprisingly profound mathematical card tricks
  • Why science needs statisticians
  • Duping others and being duped himself
  • Why he’s so secretive

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Persi’s well-known as an inventor of original tricks and sometimes helps other performers come up with new routines. For instance, he had a hand in this classic bit from Steve Martin:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spoon Jackson & Judith Tannenbaum: Poetry, Prison, Two Lives


He’s serving life in prison. She’s a poet and teacher. Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum discuss how they met, discovered a mutual love of writing, and forged a 30-year friendship, as told in their joint memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives. Originally broadcast in 2010.

Spoon was also featured in the recent documentary film, At Night I Fly by Michel Wenzer, who I interviewed in 2013.

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Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tap Dancer Andrew Nemr: Hoofing Through History

What’s not to like about tap? It’s the love child of dance and percussion, movement and music making. It’s a story of cultural cross-fertilization and irrepressible creativity, all coming together in America (which made it an apt subject for this 4th of July weekend broadcast). And it’s got the whole sonic thing going on, making it one of the few dance forms you can listen to on the radio.

Andrew Nemr has been tapping practically since he was out of diapers. He’s studied and performed with some of the best, including Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. He’s also a tap historian and co-founder of the Tap Legacy Foundation. Andrew told me about his life in tap and the beautiful tradition he’s a part of as he retraced his own steps and those of his predecessors, occasionally letting his feet do the talking.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Learn more about Andrew Nemr at his website. And check out Tap Legacy’s YouTube channel for videos of many tap greats. Here’s the marvellous Jimmy Slyde:

And John Bubbles, “Father of Rhythm Tap”:

Here’s the challenge scene from Tap, the movie that changed Andrew’s life and ultimately led to his work with Gregory Hines:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Science Historian Laurel Braitman on Animal Madness

Anxious apes, depressed dolphins, parrots on prozac: we homo sapiens aren’t the only ones with mental health issues, and animal psychiatry (and psychopharmacology) is booming. What does this new, broader understanding of mental illness reveal about our fellow creatures and us? We talk to Laurel Braitman about her new book Animal Madness.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

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Laurel and Mac, the difficult donkey.