Friday, March 13, 2015

Flicky Friday: ft. Music-less David Bowie and Mick Jagger

Today is Friday the 13th, and so it warranted a really spooky, freaky, crazy stuff. And I dare you to find anything more utterly bizarre than this:

This guy does other "musicless music videos," but this one is definitely the best. Maybe because the original video is the weirdest/best/most amazing thing ever on its own:

See? It doesn't make that much more sense with the music. My favorite part is how the whole song is about convincing people to come dance in the street. . . but no one ever shows up. And if Mick Jagger and David Bowie can't mobilize some people to come dance, well, maybe they should've tried asking somewhere other than an abandoned rail yard. Or maybe they need louder pants.

My other favorite part is their pants.  And by that I mean Jagger's pants and Bowie's one-piece jumper.

My other favorite part is how this is like pretty much an 80s version of a Vine video where Bowie and Jagger were hanging out in their favorite abandoned crack house doing drugs and decided to record this video of them dancing. I am like 80% sure that there's no one operating the camera. I did this exact same thing with all my friends in my basement as a kid except with fewer drugs but with exactly the same dance moves.

But like, did they lose a bet?

My other favorite part is how the whole thing fades to white on an image of their butts.

(Related: this more in-depth analysis of the video here; my tribute to David Bowie on his birthday many years ago.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

WTF Wednesday: Jawbones

WTF Wednesday is a much-beloved but long-neglected part of this blog. Today, a random Google search led to its reinstatement, because where else do you share such a wonderful and inexplicable juxtaposition of stock photo and headline as this:

Does it matter what I was searching to find this? No. Do I want a hotdog now? Absolutely.
What? How did a crowded bunch of hotdogs get to be the image accompanying three news stories about the discovery of ancient human fossil remains? Chewing a hotdog is the possibly WORST example of what you might need a jawbone for! Our ancestors had jawbones strong enough to stand the test of time because they tore meat from flesh and ate bark and rocks and bears -- not because they let these little gas station meat amalgams tucked in soft, springy blankets of baked flour melt in their delicate little mouths! 

But then I thought about it a little further because that's the point of this blog: for me to spend too much time thinking about dumb things that a normal busy person would shrug off. And I'm you're glad I did, because I started to realize this is a brilliant little bit of social satire for exactly that reason. Look at you, sloppy obese American Googling "jawbone" because you need a new hands-free headset so that you don't risk burning even one single calorie while you drive and eat and text and listen to the hip hop musics! Look at your mustard-stained shirt, your doughy soft body rivaling that of your limp meat's shell! What would your forefathers think? What would the hunter-gather think, in that last moment of his life before he bit into the hard, rippling neck of a saber-toothed tiger in order to save his primitive village, if he saw you in your Nissan Altima eating your QT hotdog with those powerful jaws he fought so hard to evolve for you?

This is only partly relevant but when you find a photo called
"Richard Nixon Fighting a Saber-toothed Tiger" you fucking use it.

It's like the whole thing is subtext for: yeah, go ahead, read this article about ancient jawbones. But not before you take a good hard look in the rear-view mirror of your life! Subtle, Google, but effective.

And also WTF.

And if you want more in the way of well-done stock photos (who doesn't?!?), look no further than here, where Vince Vaughn and the cast of Unfinished Business took a whole bunch of free stock photos for you to use in your office while you're busy not being a movie actor. (Honestly, they're disappointingly just real stock photos, except with Vince Vaughn in them.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Dangerous Anti-Vaccine Movement (and Why We Still Can't Talk People Out of It)

Look, I was really hesitating to jump into the fire on this issue. I've hesitated posting this for a while because I didn't want to weather the hailstorm of fiery internet criticism. I couldn't decide if this was cowardly -- failing to stand up for truth and science and fact -- or if it was prudent and restrained not to add my uneducated voice to the noisy fray. Then I realized I've never made a decision that was prudent and restrained in my whole life, so, I guess, weeeeeee!

Steven Levitt made a great point on the Freakonomics podcast a while back that stuck in my brain.  An interviewer asked him how to best go about persuading someone with statistics and data and he answered something like, "I think the first thing you have to do is decide why you want to persuade them so badly. Take a deep breath and decide if it's worth it to try."

Levitt expounded on this point on Brian Leher's show, saying of persuasion:
"We'd like to think we're all open minded people who assess the available logic and data and information we can and then kind of weigh it and decide how we want to think about it. But as a matter of fact, our biases are pretty strong and our preconceptions are pretty strong and we use a lot of shortcuts and we like to think the way other people in our circle think. So most people have an ingrained take on a particular topic and to try to budge them on that can be close to impossible."

This makes sense when he lays it out, right? Maybe we, the internet collective, pretend that we pen these thoughtful editorials designed to persuade, but we really just excel at rephrasing and packaging opinions that our readers already have? So, is it futile to try to convince people who strongly, innately disagree with you, who have absolutely, unshakably decided on their truths, who are not open to new evidence, whose friends all agree with them, and whose fingers are in their ears?

But I kept reading about this growing anti-vaccine movement and it kept making me feel queasy and impotent. And then I saw this wonderful satirical piece on The Daily Show which deftly handled the politics of it, so I decided go ahead and post about this because, for once, the consequences of not trying to persuade people about this are actually life-threatening.

The Daily Show clip explores a unique angle of this issue that's been a little under-discussed: the idea that the anti-vaccination movement was borne of the extreme Left. Usually, the people who are denounced as enemies of science are those on the extreme Right; generally, the conflict is between conservative religious priorities and "liberal" scientific ones.  But this particular anti-science movement is unique in that it's rooted in leftism -- you know, Eastern medicine, anti-conformism, homeopathic remedies, ridding the body of toxins, distrust of Big Pharma, etc., etc. The conspiracy theories that birthed anti-vaxxers are wholly different than those that oppose stem cell research or global warming or teaching Evolution in schools. And the demographics of this movement make it unique in how mainstream science has to combat it.

To me, this movement is a prime example of the notion that both sides of the ideological spectrum can fall victim to extremism, and that extremism of any brand -- far Left or far Right -- tends to be sensational, unrealistic, divorced from fact. I was certain that logic and reason always hovered closest to the middle. But Levitt tells us that everyone thinks they are reasonable and unbiased; no one says "I am an extremist fundamentalism and that's why I don't believe in vaccines." They say "I have done the research and weighed the options and that's why I don't believe in vaccines." But how can that be true? Put otherwise: how do we persuade people who aren't relying on their "gut" or their "faith," but are relying, so they claim, on science itself?

Fortunately, in this case, there happens to be real, quantifiable data -- controlled studies performed by reputable scientists who test and record and duplicate each other's work. And the data that's out there resoundingly, unanimously does not support this anti-vaccine movement. So where is this coming from? Who are these otherwise intelligent, educated, socially-conscious, well-meaning people who think they have done unbiased research, but could not possibly have done research?  I'm not sure, but the only way I know how to respond is by pointing to the actual research and the actual numbers.

By far the main reason cited by parents for refusing to vaccinate their children is a concern that certain vaccines may be linked to Autism. This claim has never been substantiated in the scientific or medical communities. Never. (The one scientific study positing a causal relationship between vaccinations and Autism was not only widely discredited, but in fact retracted by the scientific journal that published it. Furthermore, during an ethics investigation, the study's author was found to have conducted his research "dishonestly and irresponsibly." )  Arbiters of science and medicine have been falling all over themselves to test and retest and publish and republish this medical fact: there is no scientific link between vaccinations and autism. 

Statements explaining the fact that science has found no link between vaccines and Autism -- and genuinely begging parents to vaccinate their children -- have been issued by such heavyweights as the Center for Disease Control,  American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Medicine, in addition to thousands of other reputable rallying cries. There are no shortage of independent scientific studies on the subject, like this study and this one. The Autism Science Foundation shares links to more than 20 such studies on its website and advises parents, "[t]he results of studies are very clear; the data show no relationship between vaccines and autism." Even Autism Speaks, "the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization," formally states that "studies have not found a link between vaccines and autism," and "strongly encourage[s] parents to have their children vaccinated for protection against serious disease." This fact, this science, is not in dispute.

And yet, the medical community has been shockingly unsuccessful in persuading parents with these facts. So, what of it? As someone who is generally rather libertarian about personal health choices (well, maybe not?), I understand the inclination to let these anti-vaxxing parents make their own bad decisions: okay guys, "you do you" and all, feel free to lie in your own dirty, virus-y bed.  But the egalitarian approach collapses when our freedom from outbreaks of contagious diseases depends largely on this thing called "herd immunity" to actually work.

Herd immunity: the idea that if a certain threshold of people (approximately 95%) are immune to a contagious disease, they will act to protect the disease-susceptible in the population from contracting it. It's a very careful balance and small dips in immunization rates can dramatically endanger the population at large. So, what happens if the balance tilts away from an immunized herd? Well, the anti-vaxxers are giving us a chance to see it in real time:

First, measles are back. Measles, a highly contagious and potentially deadly respiratory disease, was declared officially eradicated in the United States in 2000, meaning that the continuous spread of the diseased had been effectively stopped. This was a major public health victory that was accomplished through the use of vaccines.  However, "between January 1 and November 29, 2014, there were 610 cases of measles nationwide — the highest number of cases since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000." As of the CDC's April 2014 numbers, 68% of the unvaccinated measles cases had a 'personal belief' exemption from school vaccination requirements.

For those of you who've been watching the news, this includes a major outbreak at Disneyland just this week.  As a result of one unvaccinated Disneyland-goer, 52 people have been diagnosed with measles after coming into contact with the virus at the park. Fifty-two, from one exposure! That's because "for every person infected with measles who enters a completely susceptible, unimmunized population, 12 to 18 people are infected." To put that in perspective, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, aka "SARS," the epidemic that dominated the news in the early 2000s, when introduced to an unimmunized population, will only affect only 2-4 people.  Ebola in the same population? Only 1.5 to 2.5 people.  And we thought that was the public health crisis of the decade.

Second, the U.S. is on track to have the most severe whooping cough (pertussis) outbreak in a half-century. This graph scares the crap out of me:

In a real-life controlled test group study, a major outbreak of whooping cough has struck a Michigan county which has the highest rates of parents choosing not have their children vaccinated. One single school in this unvaccinated county has reported 151 cases of pertussis.  It's the worst kind of "I told you so."

Look, I know I'm not a scientist or a medical provider or a parent, so I am woefully ill-equipped with either personal authority or anecdotes. But, these are raw numbers. This is the entire medical and scientific community imploring parents to vaccinate their children. The problem is, this information is only disseminated to people who look for it, like me -- that is, people who don't need to be convinced by it. The anti-vaccine rumors and gossip and hearsay, though, are transmitted rapidly, organically, person-to-person, unsubstantiated Facebook link by unsubstantiated Facebook link. Hysteria spreads like -- well, a virus -- and once the idea and the pseudo-science that supports it gets implanted, it's extraordinarily, terrifyingly difficult to persuade people of the truth.

At the end of the day, I bet I elicited a rousing cheer out of those of you who already agreed with me, and alienated those who didn't. If any passionate anti-vaxxers got past the title of this blog, I bet they spent the post teeming with comebacks and refutations. If not, I'd love to hear from you. That's because the problem with vaccines isn't the science; it isn't untested or unproved or up in the air. The problem with vaccines is persuasion.  How do we get people to listen to something they don't want to hear? How do we get people who think they've made a rational, medically-sound choice to weigh the science on the other side? How do you talk somebody out of what they want to believe? I don't know, but we'd better figure it out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Genius of Mallory Ortberg

"Mallory Ortberg" isn't a household name, but it should be because she's a damn genius. She's what I want to be when I grow up. (In that she's a paid writer and part of that salary compensates her for writing ridiculously funny comments on Renaissance paintings. That's, like, pretty much the definition of my dream job. It could only be better if they were Renaissance paintings of dinosaurs.)

This is not by Mallory Ortberg. I'm not great at staying on task.
I stumbled on her Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History and laughed SO HARD that I decided to blog about it. She's so dry and understated and contemporary and perfect. It's so simple...and yet it's totally humor that your mom wouldn't get, you know what I mean? (Sorry mom, but read it and tell me if you get it. Was I right? Don't answer me in public unless you agree.) You can check out the whole collection at her home, The Toast, but here are just a couple of appetite whetters*:

  you found us
  you found us with your guitar
  hey guys he found us and he brought his guitar with him
if she plays another fucking organist recital i will literally and actually die right fucking here
twenty more minutes and i’ll have made it through this entire night without talking to any–
fuck, fuck, the dog sees me
She also wrote one called Dirtbag Dionysus, which is the same conceit but with fat, slutty babies, so there's nothing wrong there.

no let’s
shut up
no shut up lets go over there
take me over there there’s a bunch of girls over there
youre my best friend
they look like sluts lets go over there
I would've sung her praises just for that, but then I learned these captions were just the beginning. She's also the ladybrains behind "Texts From," a series of fictional texts from famous (sometimes also fictional) people (and sometimes things).  There are texts from Cormac McCarthy, texts from William Blake, texts from Edgar Allen Poe, texts from The Lorax. They're all amazing, but my favorite favorite is definitely Texts From the Outsiders:
Just a bunch of beautiful guys who read poetry and get in knife fights.
hey how do you pronounce “Soc”
i mean is it like “sock”
because it looks like that’s how you’d say it
but in my head I think of it as being pronounced “soash”
like rhymes with cloche
I guess that makes sense
why do I even know what a cloche is
what kind of a gang is this
what do you mean
i mean i feel like we’re different from other gangs 
different how
i don’t know i guess
we’re just a bunch of regular beautiful guys who like to read poetry and get in knife fights
nothing like putting your hair in place
stabbing a rich guy
then talking about Robert Frost in an attic with another guy
if that’s different, then i guess i’m different
no you’re right

Her humor milieu is something I didn't quite know existed and am still not quite sure how to describe.  It's like genuine social commentary wrapped in high-brow humor disguised as low-brow humor. Sometimes affectionate, sometimes scathing, it's super esoteric-literary-bluestocking stuff for sure, but it's also raw and current and explosive and bloggy-texty-short-attention-spanny.  It's kind of like "Drunk History," but for language arts kids instead of soc (pronounced "sock") studs. (That's what we called social studies kids back when I was a virgin.)  She has a book called Texts from Jane Eyre and y'all should buy it because let's keep this lady in business, right?

AND THEN there's even more! She writes the elaborate Ann Rand's Sweet Valley High, the long-overdue Notes On Other Household Appliances From William Carlos Williams, and the darkly surrealist I’d Love To Help My Wife Do The Dishes, But I’m Trapped Under Something Heavy. 

I shared this stuff with a few favorite friends but then I remembered I had a blog where I could share the genius with all of you, so here you go. A little hump-day*** happiness for my peeps.**** Enjoy some well-deserved humor, my smart, lovely readers.

*Whetters is a gross word remind me not to make up words like that anymore. It's sounds like something a pervy** pirate would have.

**Not to be confused with a scurvy pirate.

***I also hate the word "hump-day."

****This blog post is out of control.

(Remember that time I promised to write more and censor less? THIS IS WHAT YOU GET. I'M FULFILLING PROMISES HERE.)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Giving Pause: The Drying Up of Creative Juices in the Internet Age

In this time of mandatory early-January new-year introspection, I'm forced to realize that I kind of did a crap job blogging last year.

I looked back at some of my entries during my more prolific time, i.e., the golden years of 2010 - 2012, and some of the stuff I wrote about back then I would never have the lady balls to write about again now.  Not even necessarily because I disagree with what I wrote -- though sometimes that's true, too -- but because weathering the fallout of internet comments and attacks and silent judgment seems unnecessary and exhausting.  I don't get paid for this; I don't need to incite internet warfare over my uncompensated opinions.

But it's also a sign of my thinning skin, my mounting real-life tendency to second-guess. The annoyed among you might call this the first baby steps of finally learning to think before I speak, which, admittedly, is an overdue lesson. But the creative side of me that loved blogging and opining and defending my viewpoints feels dry and sad and confused about it. And I started to wonder what happened.

This morning I read Karina Longworth's Slate article "Watch Everything You Say." While purporting to be a simple book review, it implicated Nicki Minaj's Rolling Stone interview in which Ms. Minaj laid down the following truth: "you gotta watch everything you say—people find an issue with every fucking thing." Longworth agreed, writing: 
It’s become incredibly difficult for anyone, public figure or not, to speak their truth without pre-calculating how much shit they’re willing to take for it, and calibrating their message accordingly...
Maybe everyone is crippled by their awareness that 'people find an issue with every fucking thing,' and probably a lot of people who express themselves for a living are withholding or mutating what they really think and feel because of that.
These thoughts really hit home for me, a blocked would-be writer who's been hemming and hawing and self-censoring and erasing and leaving dozens of thought-kernels unexplored and unpublished over the last year.  There is this sense of being crippled by over-considering your audience; there's cowardice in trying to please everyone. But there's also asshole-dom in spouting strong opinions whose nuances and counterpoints you ignore.

In some ways, the chilling effect created by cultural sensitivities isn't entirely bad, is it? Perhaps it causes people to evaluate their arguments more carefully before making them; perhaps it can encourage us to take pause, acknowledge the contradictions, the burdens of privilege, the biases, and make more thoughtful, considered, respectful statements and judgments. But it can also just beget silence.

I hate making JVDB cry.

What I mean is, I'm glad that I'm a member of a generation of discerning readers who refuse to accept tropes and insensitivities and who are determined to explode preconceptions and intolerances. But, I'm having a really hard time being a writer in one. 

It's coincidental that there has been a national conversation in the last few weeks about censorship.  I'm proud that we as a nation, and indeed as a free-thinking world, have decided strenuously that "censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance." We've demanded the release of The Interview; we've denounced the horrible crimes at Charlie Hebdo. It seems basic and obvious that free speech -- even asshole speech -- is the cornerstone of a free democracy.

So I'm going to try to do a better job of making bolder choices this year. Or at least making some choices this year. I want this blog to be a place it's fun and humorous, but on the rare occasion when I am both opinionated and slightly qualified, I also want to tackle some real shit. Bear with me, and read with me, and point out my mistakes and my oversights. Tell me where I got it wrong or where someone else might've thought about it differently; I like the dialogue and I want your thoughts and feedback. We are all so oversaturated with information that sometimes it feels useless to add to the murmur of conversation and sometimes it feels really unfair to craft and strain and work and expose yourself when people can so effortlessly tear you down with a comment button. But it's worth it, this thing we've created, this speech. It's worth it to me, and I hope it's worth it to you to keep reading.

Even you, asshole commenters.

Here's to 2015, loves. 

(Also, by means of shout out: Karina Longworth, who penned the Slate article above, also hosts this fabulous podcast called "You Must Remember This," which explores the forgotten/hidden history of classic Hollywood. For a girl like me who walked down the aisle to "As Time Goes By" and lost her shit over Kim Kardashian as Elizabeth Taylor, this is girl-crushing at its height. Check it out.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Serial Postmortem: Criticism, Parody, and the Challenge of Being Likeable

Obviously, over the holidays I finished Serial, the explosively famous true-crime podcast from the producers of This American Life, aka white folk's most favoritest thing since going to Whole Foods in yoga clothes. Serial became unexpectedly popular -- it was always intended, I assume, to be a niche spinoff for true podcast fans -- and took on a very real life of its own.  People who've never heard of This American Life started tuning in, which is nuts-crazy and almost certainly due to my extraordinary blog post on the subject which was read by a record double digits number of people. You're welcome, Serial. Let me know when Sarah Koening needs a break and I'll fill right in.

With the show's popularity has come additional information: you may have seen that the elusive Jay, whom all listeners have undoubtedly accused of murder at some point, gave a three part interview that -- believe or disbelieve him -- casts Koenig in a different light. And just yesterday, real-life prosecutor Kevin Urick gave a public interview about what he called "a run-of-the-mill domestic violence murder," totally unpersuaded by the questions Koenig raised. Outside of the careful framing of the show, these interviews remind us that this crime really happened and these people are real people with real lives who may not be as entertained by the radio drama as we bystanders are.

Of course, with fame comes also infamy: the inevitable boomerang of criticism and satire. First there's backlash, like Jay Kang's "'Serial' and White Reporter Privilege." And then there's then there's backlash against the backlash, like Conor Friedersdorf's thoughtful defense of Serial in The Atlantic. And then there's criticism's happy, loving neighbor: satire.

While gentle parody is not new to the TAL gang -- there's a whole podcast called THAT American Life -- the scale of Serial parody has been unique.  Saturday Night Live's Christmas episode did a moderately funny piece on it (Sarah Koening investigating Kris Kringle, who allegedly leaves presents in people's homes on Christmas). It was pre-taped, which means it was more permanent and much more expensive to produce than a regular walk-on live sketch. And it was completely inside-jokey, unashamedly intended as entertainment only for regular listeners of the podcast. (By comparison, Fred Armisen impersonating Ira Glass was cut from SNL last year because the producers thought too few viewers would get the joke.) So, it's safe to say that Serial's cultural relevance -- or at least its perceived cultural relevance -- has eclipsed its parent podcast.

There's also this parody, where comedians Will Stephen, Zach Cherry, and Paul Laudiero mock Koenig's elaborate question-parsing ("Adnan made phone calls. He also received them. Why? What makes a person receive a phone call?"  and "Where was the pay phone? What’s a Best Buy?
What makes its buy the best?”) Then there's this cringeworthy parody that resets Serial as a rom-com between Koening and Adnan using real Serial audio (it was only a matter of time before someone explored this poor-taste angle, right?). This parody predicted the last episode's ending; this parody speculates that Season 2 will just be an analysis of Sarah Koenig's performance in Season 1 ("Everyone said Adnan was likeable...but am I likeable?")

Courtesy of This American Chart, follow her on Twitter.
And though that last one was just a parody, that's kind of the note that the show left with me, too. As the last episode ended, I was left with one primary thought: resoundingly, whether they thought he was guilty or not guilty, every single person who was asked about Adnan said that he was "charming," and "likeable," that he was the kind of person no one would think capable of murder, abd that given what his friends and family and community leaders knew about him, it was unfathomable that he could have committed this crime.

And the support and love and respect and admiration for Adnan was so great that I started to realized that if I were ever in Adnan's horrible, unfortunate situation, literally everyone would be like, "oh yeah, I can totally see Alison being a murderer." "Alison? Oh yeah, she probably did it."  "Have you guys even looked into Alison? She didn't know the guy or anything but she just has that 'murderess' quality about her."  And then I started to freak out, because these people said such consistently, overwhelmingly flattering things about Adnan, and he still got convicted! A life sentence! Where does that leave someone like me, who drinks too much and talks way too much and curses a lot and is a member of America's most hated profession and isn't a great driver and can't cook and has random enemies I didn't even know about?

So I came here to say, you guys, seriously, if I ever get accused of murder you have to stick up for me! Like, I promise that I almost certainly didn't do it. Like 95 percent. Like at least 90 percent.  Like 85-90 percent of the time I didn't do the murder and you guys have to believe me and say it doesn't sound like me at all. Unless I killed somebody wearing a plastic coat listening to Huey Lewis and the News, then whoops, yeah, that totally sounds like me.

What if Jay killed Paul Allen?
But I started thinking that it was the same with Hae also, right? Everyone loved Hae. She was a teenage girl and everyone thought she was smart, mature, confident, good-natured, funny, likeable. Y'all, literally no teenage girl in the history of the world has ever been likable. Teenage girls are the worst human beings on the planet. It should be like "oh, that's sad. Did her parents murder her because she was completely insufferable for the last four years? I get that." If someone had murdered me when I was 18 years old, like legitimately 10 people would have cheered. I'm not trying to be glib about this (too late), but I do find it compelling that both of the parties in this horrible, real-life crime -- the victim and the convicted killer -- are unusually charismatic, well-respected people who are universally beloved across high school cliques. That's unusual, right? Just think if Judd Nelson had murdered Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club: no one would be surprised that he was a killer and half the people would think that bitch had it coming.*

Maybe that's the basis that made this show so captivating. No one in the podcast was evil; everyone was sympathetic. A crime with only victims? Gripping. So now, Serial Season 2 is in the works, and it will be interesting to see if the show can duplicate the unique elements of personality and circumstance that made Season 1 so addictive, because it has to be rare, right? And in the meantime, I'm serious, y'all, if I ever get arrested be nice to me. And please don't show the police this blog.

*Like Molly Ringwald, I also occasionally brought sushi for lunch in high school. Hence the 10 people cheering for my death thing.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Serial: The Podcast

Have you guys been listening to Serial? It's this amazing, multi-part, true-crime radio show told -- you guessed it -- serially over a handful of weeks. It's so addictive and fantastic: the intrigue of true crime through the patient, poignant lens of public radio, and I'm super jealous of you if you haven't started it because you get to dig in from the beginning right now.

Sarah Koenig, one of the producers of This American Life, the snob-elite's radio golden child, wanted to tell an unfolding story too big to fit into even one of those full-hour TALs (does anyone else dread those? Occasionally they're worth it, but most of the time I'd prefer three minutes of David Rakoff in the middle somewhere), so she created this show. Along with Julie Snyder, another TAL producer, Serial was born as a sanctioned TAL spinoff that capitalizes on everything we love about podcasts and episodic television.

Koenig, Ira Glass, and Julie Synder: the TAL Dream Team
SO: Serial, at least for this season, is preoccupied with true story of a high school girl who was murdered in 1999; her strangled body was found in Leakin Park, Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan, was convicted of first degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence. The jury heard a simple story of teenage love and jealousy and drugs and sex and hiding from strict immigrant parents. But, like all good crime dramas, there's something rotten in Leakin Park.

I'm not spoiling anything to tell you that you're not going to think Adnan did it, at least not at first. It's inevitable, the way the story unfolds -- the fact that there's a story at all -- that no listener could think this was an open and shut case, that the jury was right, that justice was served. But Serial gets you there in this crazy interesting way, and it's so compelling that I just had to come here and talk to you guys about it.

In the first episode, before revealing any details of the crime that is going to be so thoroughly combed and explored, Sarah Koenig plants this idea: when nothing interesting or notable happens on a certain day, you tend not to remember that day's details.  It's a really basic notion and one that's easily supported, at least anecdotally.  For instance: the day your grandmother died, or the day you started a new job, I bet you remember tons of specifics like where you ate lunch, what you wore, who you were with.  But two weeks ago Thursday -- what did you eat for lunch? Who did you call on the phone? Probably harder to say, even if it's more recent. Likewise -- so the unspoken analogy goes --  you'd probably remember what you wore to kill someone, but if you don't remember what you were wearing on a certain day, you probably didn't kill someone. Right?

This simple theory, this implanted idea, frames the entire story so subtly and perfectly -- and "frames" is a word that comes frequently to the listener's mind as some sketchy characters point suspicious fingers at the alleged killer. This little concept sticks to the back of our minds every time the Adnan, the killer, swears "I don't know" and "I don't remember." If he doesn't remember, we conclude, he couldn't have done it! It doesn't feel like this is a novel suggestion; it feels like a simple fact we've all known and intuited forever. It feels like we came up with it on our own, this notion that Adnan's inability to fill in certain details of his alibi is proof not of his guilt, but of his innocence. This uncomplicated little conceit changes the entire way we listeners approach the story and weigh the evidence.

This idea is so powerful, in fact, that I almost wrote "alleged" killer above.  (I literally did write it and then deleted it and then decided to leave it crossed-out because I think it proves my point of how inside my head this show is.) Of course, Adnan is not an "alleged" murderer; he's a convicted murderer whose appeals were denied. But I -- even me, a Lawyer Who Should Know Better -- instinctively wrote "alleged" because he feels alleged. His conviction feels wrong. It feels so hard like he's not guilty. Because if he were guilty, wouldn't he know exactly what he'd been doing on the day his ex-girlfriend was strangled?

Please understand that this isn't the only confusing, conflicting evidence that brings doubt to your mind about Adnan's conviction.  And please understand even more that Sarah Koenig brings the reliable, detail-seeking, journalistic integrity found on TAL to this show, too, and I'm not suggesting she doesn't. Koenig exposes and discusses evidence that the prosecution and the jury relied on to convict Adnan. She explains countervailing theories and calls attention to pieces of Adnan's story that don't match up with physical evidence and parts of the story he can't explain. She talks a lot on the show about her doubts and balance and truth-seeking.

Did somebody say "cold case?"
But she does it against the backdrop of this idea she planted in the first minutes of the first episode -- this whole concept that the less you remember about a day, the greater the chance is that you didn't do something notable or memorable or traumatizing or life-changing like, say, killing someone that day. Contrary to how the rewards and disparagement of the justice system are meted out, Koenig's court rewards lack of information, lack of detail, lack of knowledge as proof of innocence. And she does it by simply stating something you've probably never thought about but that suddenly seems obvious: you remember the details of memorable days more than other days.

I am not criticizing Koening for doing this. In fact, I respect the hell out of it. I think she and Serial are brilliant and subtle and beautiful. I think the structure of the show, especially the first episodes' little lede, is as important and persuasive as the evidence and the interviews and the commentary themselves. TAL has made its reputation not as a news source or a fact-finder or exposer an entertainer (though it is often those things), but as a storyteller. And that's what Serial does so perfectly: telling this story in a way that feels unbiased but, from its first moments, is already getting you to believe what they want you to believe.

I'm obsessed with Serial. I'm obsessed with its art of persuasion. And, I truly believe that Sarah Koening knows more about this case than any person ever will; she has all the evidence and all the transcripts and all the benefits of hindsight, and she also has what the rest of us don't: her own ability to judge the character of every person she's spoken to with that basic, journalistic gut-instinct. She has an exhaustively-researched theory of this case, a je ne sais quoi intuition about liars and victims, and I wholeheartedly believe that she should absolutely portray this story in a way that best accommodates that theory. Even Koening's doubts -- which she explains and discusses honestly and openly, and which let her stand in for us, the listener, and ask questions on our behalf and guide our answers -- genuinely make us trust her opinions even more. She executes this whole story arc just exquisitely, and it's a joy to listen to it unfold as much for her craftsmanship as for the juicy criminal topic.

So, please go listen to Serial. Binge it. Soak it up. But pay attention in those first, naive, innocent moments to Koenig's appeal to your common sense about remembering details, and try to notice how it shapes your view of the case going forward. It's smart and it's clever, and with subtleties like that, Koenig could get away with murder.