Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jim Dwyer: Innocence, Guilt and Science

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 actually helped convict the innocent. Everything from hair comparisons to fiber and blood spatter analysis to footprint matching – as well as mistaken eyewitness testimony and false confessions – had led juries to reach woefully wrong 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.

We’ll post the audio of the show here soon.

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.

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


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg: How Not to Be Wrong
Show for Aug 17, 2014

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.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Auditory Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz: Adventures in Sound
Show for Aug 10, 2014

(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.


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
Show for July 13, 2014

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.


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
Show for July 6, 2014

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
Show for June 29, 2014

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.


Laurel and Mac, the difficult donkey.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Rerun)
Show for June 22, 2014

I’ll return with something brand-new next week, but this week I had a wedding to attend, so I replayed my 2011 conversation with psychologist/cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Steve argues that, modern mayhem notwithstanding, human violence has been trending downward for centuries. We discussed whether, how and why people have been getting more peacable. Topics include natural selection, game theory, the civilizing effects of civilization, the origin and nature of morality, and Steve’s own feelings about violence.

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mathematician Noson Yanofsky: The Outer Limits of Reason
Show for June 15, 2014

Does science have all the answers? The answer is no, and the proof comes from science itself. Mathematician/computer scientist Noson Yanofsky and I talked about his latest book, The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us. It’s a treasury of insoluble problems, undecidable propositions and practical or theoretical barriers to understanding. We discussed Alan Turing’s Halting Problem, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenbergian uncertainty, the mathematics of infinity and the simultaneously simple and ridiculously difficult traveling salesman problem. Also quantum computing, the trouble with self-referentiality and the wondrous correspondence between math and the physical world.

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

International Basketball Player and Writer Coleman Collins
Show for June 8, 2014

Coleman Collins was a stand-out basketball player in college and might have had a shot at the NBA if he’d stuck around and worked his way up through the D-league. But he chose to take his talents to Europe instead, where he could see the world and make a good living in the process. Over the last 6 years, he’s played for teams in France, Germany, Bosnia, Ukraine and Bahrain. Coleman’s not only an elite baller but also an incisive writer, reporting on his travels and cross-cultural experiences for ESPN’s TrueHoop blog. After reading his terrific essay on encountering the N-word in Bosnia, I was determined to talk to him. We discussed his dual life as athlete and writer/cultural commentator, what it’s like to be an African-American in places where that’s a novelty, cutting through stereotypes, basketball culture in Europe and the Middle East, and race at home and abroad.

Coleman’s Instagram account and website.

Here’s a link to Ta-Nahisi Coates’ essay The Case for Reparations, one of the topics touched on in our conversation.

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

Not many guys can really rock lederhosen, but Coleman Collins can.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Polar Photographer and Storm Chaser Camille Seaman
Show for June 1, 2014

Maybe it’s not so surprising that someone named after a hurricane and whose Shinnecock Indian grandfather taught her that “it’s your sweat up there in the clouds” would have a special feeling for meteorological phenomena and the cycles of nature. But there were miles to go and a lot of serendipity before Camille Seaman found her calling as an acclaimed photographer of ice and storms. She was an at-risk teen when a teacher gave her her first camera. Then there was an impetuous trip to the arctic years later, and the emotional jolt of 9/11, and some mentoring from a National Geographic photographer…

I caught up with Camille as she was finishing up a Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford U. (she’s also a Senior TED Fellow). We spoke about her sinuous and chancy career path, the lives of icebergs and clouds, the allure of storm chasing, nature photography as portraiture and her next project, an ambitious experiment in urban reclamation. Plus a bonus online segment of photo-geekery: film vs digital, SLRs vs rangefinders, Photoshopping vs au naturel.

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



See more of Camille’s work at her website.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Computational Cosmologist Tom Abel: Simulating the Early Universe
Show for May 25, 2014

It still seems crazy to me that physicists can say anything with confidence about the cosmos circa 13.7 billion years ago. But they can, thanks in part to a gift from the heavens called the cosmic microwave background radiation. It was produced about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, and it captured a snapshot of the cosmic scene at that time, and perhaps much earlier, as explained in this previous 7th Ave Project interview. But after that flash of light, preserved today in microwaves, things went dark for 100s of millions of years. And when they got bright enough again for our telescopes to make anything out (by virtue of the look back effect), everything had changed. Where there had been only atoms and particles, now there were stars, black holes, even whole galaxies.

Though we lack any direct information from the “dark age” in which all this cosmic creativity took place, Tom Abel of Stanford University is reconstructing what might have happened. He and colleagues are using sophisticated mathematical models and some badass computing hardware to simulate the birth of the first stars, galaxies and other structures. In effect, they’re using computers to “predict the past.” Tom and I talked about how the universe got made, and how it made us. Tom has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations on where our atoms came from, and the numbers are head-spinning.

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

Tom Abel colleague Ralf Kaehler and his team at Stanford are using Tom’s simulation results to create movies of the youthful universe.